I have a friend who translates historical novels. We have the same job the way a penguin and a flamingo are both birds.

She works from a printed source text. On paper! I can’t even translate a four-line occasional poem for my neighbours without opening it in my CAT tool:

Next to each English sentence, I need a text field for its translation. With two unsegmented texts, I would feel like a spectator at a tennis match, and I’d have to find the right place in each text at every back and forth.

Besides, I need at least the illusion that the built-in intelligent AutoComplete could at any moment offer me the rest of the word I’m typing, so I won’t feel like a typesetting machine. I do understand that this might not be as important with historical novels. Probably they don’t require the translator to type the same word at least 30 times a day, and certainly not monster words such as “General Data Protection Regulation” or “digital transformation”. But still, how does she do it?

Of course, I’m the penguin of the two. When I started out in this job 20 years ago, it was very clear that I couldn’t fly, and I certainly didn’t want to.

Just like a regular penguin, I had one main differentiator: the fact that I didn’t have one. We did everything we could to be a homogeneous group. In the beginnings of IT translation, we mostly localized user interfaces and software manuals. This was always done by several translators, to get each huge software release to market as soon as possible. All of us had to adhere to interminable guidelines to translate so uniformly that it was hard to tell there was more than one IT translator in the world. Back then, there weren’t many people who could do that. In spite of our unspectacular plumage, we were cherished rare birds.

Of course, our names were never mentioned, not even the names of the translation companies, while literary flamingo translators are named in their books and retain a copyright to their translations.

A herd of nameless penguins, hunched over their work under the rule of terminology lists and style guides, sounds like a pretty unassuming bunch. However, in our early years, we created a new everyday parlance. Sometimes I just pause during my day to giggle about a vending machine displaying the German translation of “error. operation canceled”, which sounds extremely lifeless and mechanical, just the way you would expect a machine to communicate. This technological successor to Prussian officialese is the early penguins’ contribution to the world.

We penguins have evolved rapidly over the last years.

The inconspicuous black-and-white, waddling herd still exists. However, it is no longer seen as a rare species, since basic IT knowledge has become more widespread. Automation and commodification are unjustly whittling away at the high esteem software localizers would still deserve.

Instead, the ascent of content marketing has set the stage for cute crested penguins, super rare Galapagos penguins, and more. Today, IT translators can cultivate their own voices and modulate them from verbatim to creative. We even try our hand at “transcreation”, which conveys the content rather than its form.

Among ourselves, the formerly uniform tuxedo wearers have always preferred an image-rich, emotional language. The nascent internet and its predecessor, the usenet, were full of odd birds discussing and joking among ourselves and laying the foundation for a more vivid industry language long ago. Straightforward and making no fishbones about our thoughts, but humorously and often tongue-in-beak.

I’ll never be a flamingo. But sometimes I build up momentum on the icy slope like a ski jumper, and glide through the air for a long time.