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Mental Misconceptions: The Truth About Translation



“You can only truly understand the language services industry if you’re in it.” I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve used this phrase while talking to colleagues, friends, family and strangers about what I do, but it couldn’t be truer; many industry outsiders uphold many misconceptions about what we do and how the industry works. I can’t blame them for that, because although the global translation industry is worth a whopping $33.5 billion dollars, according to Translate Media, you very rarely hear about it in the media. So unless people happen to know a translator or have done their own research, which is unlikely, how are they possibly going to know anything about what we do and our sector? That’s why I’m writing this post, because as well as being wordsmiths and linguistic mediators, if you like, we’re also educators. I will therefore dispel some of the main conceptions I’ve come across and finally put the record straight.


1) Translators and interpreters are not the same thing:


Whenever I tell people I’m a translator, they assume I either work for the police or in law courts. This is probably because they’ve watched crime documentaries or police programmes where a linguist is required to mediate between both parties, or they’ve most likely seen linguists working in booths at international events. People actually do this sort of work in the real world, but they’re not “translators.” These people are called “interpreters.” In a nutshell, this is the difference between the two:


· Translator: Converts written/typed text in language A into written/typed text in language B.

· Interpreter: Converts spoken text in language A into spoken text in language B, as well as vice versa.


So, as a translator, I work exclusively with the written word. My clients send me documents, web copy, menus, brochures, etc. that need to be reproduced in English (we’ll come on to the reason for this later) via the same medium. This task is called translation. For the very reason I’ve mentioned above, interpreting is a completely different skill to translation, which is why translators and interpreters receive different forms of training. Some language professionals can do both, but they are few and far between. Most professional linguists tend to be translators, as opposed to interpreters. For instance, I’m a professional translator, but I’m not a qualified interpreter, merely offering this service for my football clients — the field I’m most familiar with.


2) Translators always work into their native language:


Industry outsiders will always ask me questions such as: “So your client will send you a document in English and you have to translate it into Spanish?” When I tell them that I actually translate into English, they look at me as if I’ve lost the plot. I have no idea where this misconception comes from, but it’s extremely common.


As a native English speaker, i.e. someone who has been brought up and educated in the United Kingdom, English will always be my most proficient language. I could spend every single day of the rest of my life trying to further perfect my French, Spanish and Portuguese if I wanted to, but my speaking, reading, writing or listening skills in French, Spanish or Portuguese will never be as good as they are in English.


I remember translating from English into French and Spanish at university, and although I used to get very good marks, my French and Spanish sounded so stilted and unnatural at times compared to the solutions offered by my native French and Spanish speaking professors. It also took me twice as long to work the other way, because I was constantly hesitating, struggling to decide whether I’d found the best way to say certain things in those language, and even then, I still wasn’t entirely sure whether I’d literally regurgitated an English phrase onto the page in French or Spanish. The only people who can produce convincing, naturally-sounding and functional English translations are native English speakers, because only they can write in English well enough, and understand the readership well enough, to achieve this aim. Likewise, if you want a perfectly written, naturally-sounding French translation, you will need to hire a native French speaker.


There are also different varieties of the same language, so if you’re trying to conquer the American market, give your text to a translator who has grown up in the US, not a Brit, like me. If you want a translation to impress your Portuguese clients, don’t ask a Brazilian to do it. If you want your business presentation translated for a potential client in Quebec, you’ll need a Canadian French speaker to do it, not someone from France.


Getting a native speaker to do the translation is essential. There are some cases where this rule has to be broken – for example, most Bengali and Farsi translators would need to translate both from and into English, since there are very few, if any, native English speakers who understand these languages – but you should only do so when there is no other option. For the most common language combinations, such as Spanish <> English, French <> German, Italian <> English, etc., it’s highly unprofessional for translators to translate out of their native language, especially because that would mean non-compliance with international standards. In Britain, your membership of one of the two national translation organisations may even be revoked if you’re caught translating professionally out of your native language.


3) Translators aren’t walking dictionaries:

Translators will tell you that there’s nothing more annoying than someone asking you how to translate a random word, especially when it’s highly specialised or extremely specific.

Although I have spent most of my life living in the UK, there are still words I’ve never come across in English. I mean, why would dictionaries and thesauri even exist if every native speaker knew every single word in the language? And the same applies for my foreign languages. Yes, I speak and write French, Spanish and Portuguese very well, but I have never ever translated a text and said to myself: “I know what every single word means in this text.” As the saying goes, you learn something new every day, and that couldn’t be truer in terms of foreign language vocabulary.


Every field has its own specific terms, every language has multiple synonyms for certain words, and different countries where the same language is spoken even have their own vocabulary. I mean, for example, as a Spanish to English translator, am I supposed to know the national equivalent for a particular word in almost every single country in South America, Central America, the Spanish Caribbean, Equatorial Guinea, the Philippines and Spain? No, of course not!


Like all translators, I constantly use the plethora of multilingual resources available online, because the meaning of the text I’m translating and the right words will not always come to me immediately, plus there are always new words in every text. My research skills are therefore equally as important as my linguistic skills for my job.


4) Translators aren’t Jacks-of-all-trades:


If a translator claims that they can translate any type of text or says that they specialise in every field, they’re lying straight through their teeth and you shouldn’t trust them. That might sound harsh, but it’s true.


Translators who work with more obscure languages, such as Maori and Rotokas, will most likely have to deal will all types of content, because translators who know these languages are in very short supply. However, if you have a legal text that you need translating from English into French, i.e. an extremely common language combination, unless the translator you find has worked as a lawyer or has extensive experience in legal translation, you shouldn’t let them go near you text with a barge pole.


To properly translate a legal text, the translator must understand the concepts referred to in the text extremely well and be highly familiar with legal language and terminology. To produce a perfect medical translation, a translator must have acquired in-depth knowledge of the field. For example, to translate a text about a triple heart bypass, you must understand exactly how the procedure works. That’s hard enough in your native language, never mind in a foreign language.


Personally, I only translate the type of content I do because I’m highly familiar with it. As a massive football and darts fan, I know the terminology used in both sports like the back of my hand, and I also know exactly how a football or darts text should sound in English and what readers expect to see. As a keen traveller, I know exactly what kind of language and content makes me want to visit places, so I’m able to produce highly effective and persuasive tourism translations. I can also tailor my writing style extremely well to more administrative text types, so that when I combine that with my in-depth knowledge of human geography and sub-Saharan Africa, I am able to produce naturally-sounding and factually accurate translations for the international development sector.


I never do pharmaceutical translations, because I don’t have a clue about pharmaceutical products. I don’t do financial translations, because I know hardly anything about finance. I don’t do legal translations, because I can barely understand legal texts in English, never mind French, Spanish or Portuguese.


Translators are, and should be, specialists in particular fields, not Jacks-of-all-trades.


5) And no, Google cannot do our job:


For want of a better word, Google Translate is wank. It’s a load of shite. Excuse my French! Now you make think that I’m afraid of Google Translate and the possibility of machines taking over human translators, but I’m not afraid in the slightest, because I know just how shite most machine translation engines are.


Machines are not equipped with the logic, contextual understanding, flexibility and emotional awareness of humans. So, for the creative translations I do, such as brochures and football articles, machine translation is utterly useless — as much use as a chocolate teapot. You could argue that all translations are creative, but for marketing and journalistic texts in particular, there are many differences between languages. Google can’t change a simple description in Spanish into a call to action or a rhetorical question in English, like I can in a brochure or web copy translation. Google can’t tell that Pato is the name of a footballer, rather than a “duck,” in a football article like I can, because all it’s been fed with are hundreds of translations where “pato” has been rendered as “duck” in English. Google can’t change the sentence structure and the word order to produce a highly idiomatic rendering in the target language (destination language) that persuades the reader or gauges their interest. Google can’t add extra bits of information into the translation to explain concepts specific to French culture that British readers won’t understand, because it doesn’t have an in-depth understanding of French and British culture like I do.


Although machine translation can work well in some cases – for example, if you feed the engine with well-translated legal texts, which are full of standardised phrasing and frequently occurring field-specific vocabulary, you will get decent results if you ask it to translate a legal text – it still lacks that vital human touch. I understand that machine translation is widely used nowadays to get through large volumes of text more quickly, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with some decent engines, but post-editing (getting a human to edit the machine output) is a must.


Human translators will always be needed, because machines can only do some of the job at best. To use another sports-related analogy – those of you who read my content will know I love these – putting a text through machine translation is like having twenty shots on target without finding the back of the net. Your approach play might be excellent, but if you can’t score, you won’t win the game. So you need that bit of quality in the final third, and that’s exactly the same with machine-translated output; a human is required to finish off the move by providing the desired level of quality that the machine is clearly incapable of. That’s why Chelsea have bought Lukaku and my clients have signed me instead of Google.


By dispelling the common misconceptions I have discussed in this post, I hope you now have a much clearer picture of what the translation industry and our profession are like. It’s a wonderful industry to be a part of, and one I love talking about, so please get in touch if you’d like to know more about what I do. As I’ve said, I’m not just a wordsmith and a linguistic mediator, but also an educator.


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