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Translation: a once profitable business

July 15, 2012

Mohammad Ashraf has been managing a small office in Islamabads old Aabpara Market since 1996. Before this, he had established himself in France where he worked for over 14 years and learned European languages like French, Spanish, Italian and German.

When he came back to Pakistan, it was this multi-lingual knowledge that became a source of living for him. Ashraf started a translation business in the Aabpara Market and it quickly became a profitable venture. Aabpara was also a good location because major bus stops of the city were close to it and the bus routes led right to the foreign office, different embassies and foreign missions.

And those who aspired to go abroad, mostly students, would get their documents translated at Aabpara market before heading off to the embassies for the final processing.

This was the time when security was not a concern and all areas of Islamabad were accessible to everyone. Ordinary people could walk into sensitive areas like the Diplomatic Enclave easily on any mode of transport. Ashraf, like other translators at the time, enjoyed his thriving business felt overburdened but considered himself fortunate to earn a sizeable living through the business of translation. Every day, dozens of clients waited for their turns for the translation of their documents in the language of the country where they intended to go.

This situation, however, changed drastically after 9/11 when European countries tightened the criteria for granting visa and the government declared the Diplomatic Enclave as high security zone. Entry of public and private transport to the Diplomatic Enclave was blocked and last but not the least, in view of complaints received by different embassies regarding substandard and erroneous translations, around a year ago, the foreign office stopped attesting documents in any language other than English, related Ashraf.

Now the embassies are left with no option other than to rely on translators who they trusted more, Ashraf said, and added that the situation provided an opportunity to the few well connected translators who managed to obtain exclusive licences for translation of a particular language and now enjoy monopolies in the translation business.

As a result, the booming translation business became a victim to the security crisis in the country. And abandoning their unique profession, translators turned their businesses into CD shops or started providing basic services like photocopy and fax facilities. Some translators have even become agents for the licensed translators but the story does not end at this restructuring.

Abdul Rauf, another translator at Aabpara revealed that authorised translators have taken advantage of their monopolies and charge ten times more what the traditional translators were charging from the customers. When Rauf would translate a marriage certificate, for example, he said, he would charge Rs500 while the rates of the French cultural centre Alliance Française is more than double.

Similarly, Rauf revealed that students who want to apply for study visas are among the affected of translators’ monopoly as now they have to pay five times (around Rs50,000) what they could pay earlier for their documents translation.

Rao Summar, a Ph. D student explained that in addition to the issue of overcharging, he faced a rigid bureaucracy when he took his educational documents in Italian to an authorised translator.

He had earlier gotten the documents translated by a local translator of Sargodha but, he explained, “The Italian embassy officials did not accept the translation and asked me to get the documents translated from their authorised translator only.”

On the other side, authorised translators defend the move by embassies citing unreliability of external translators. Syed Abdul Rauf, owner of Avanti Pakistan, the authorised Italian translator explained that local translators are mostly uneducated and unqualified and make mistakes in translating.

He revealed that local translators were even known to resort to the online website, called Google Translator, to do their work but the website remains imperfect and a problem for embassies, especially because Pakistani officials attesting the translated documents at Pakistani foreign office themselves did not have enough linguistic know-how to be able to distinguish good translations from bad ones.

Mozzam Khan, foreign office spokesman told Dawn that it is the sovereign right of embassies to accept or refuse the translation or document for processing visa application for their respective countries and the foreign office cannot compel them to accept any and all translations.

“The translation of travel documents is a technical matter and needs strong command on the language concerned, so embassies authorized some translators for attesting and translating the documents,” he said.

He further revealed that historically, the foreign office provided the facility of attestation of foreign languages but stopped because the embassies did not want the foreign office to attest unauthorized translators. So right now the foreign office can only attest documents in English.

Amir Khalil, an immigration lawyer, however, contested the foreign office’s claim and said that foreign office cannot evade its responsibility by shifting its responsibilities to the embassies.

“Embassies are legally bound to abide by the law of the land of country in which they are operating,” explained Khalil, adding, “So the foreign office can evolve a procedure of appointing qualified translators for the translation of particular languages in consultation with embassies in order to make application procedures easy for aspiring immigrants to these countries.”

Procedural issues aside, the fact is that Aabpara market is not the multi-cultural, diverse place it used to be with Pakistanis and foreigners grocery shopping on a daily basis, and now the shrinking translating business further accentuates the disconnect that exists between ‘us’ and ‘them’.