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5 Shocking Statements About Translation Even Smart People Make

Content Marketing

When you work in the translation industry, you come across a lot of people with funny ideas about what we do, and how we do it. Unfortunately, translation isn’t given the value that it deserves as a people often look upon it as a commodity; a commodity with little value at that.

Many “smart” people I have met in the 10 years of working in translation do not understand the value, complexity and worth of translation. This applies to translation work itself, the efforts of translators and the solutions offered by agencies.

Translation is a serious business. Without it the world would stop – not literally, but think about business, politics, transport, sports, media, etc. that would all be affected if we no longer had translation.

Here are 5 shocking statements I hear all too often that point to ignorance about translation and translators.

#1: “If you speak another language, you can be a translator”

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This is perhaps one of the most common statements I hear from businesses who do not wish to invest in professional translation services. It is possibly the most serious of the lot.

Let’s get this clear – speaking another language does not and will never qualify anybody to become a “translator”. It may help you understand the meaning of something, say in French, but could you properly then translate that into your own language? Some people may be able to accurately translate texts but the vast majority will not. Why?

  • A translator must have an in-depth and academic understanding and knowledge of at least two languages (a foreign language and a native language). Their reading/writing skills must be superb in both.
  • Translating is a proper skill. You don’t just become a translator; you study for it, you practice and you develop your skills to ensure you understand the ins and outs of translation. It’s not just about turning one set of words into another – it’s way more complex than that.
  • Language is not just words – it’s a country, a people, a psyche and a culture. It’s full of subtleties only a well versed, experienced translator can grasp and work with in terms of producing high quality translations.

Let me put it this way. If you wanted your website translated into Spanish, would you really give the translation to your Aunt Paula’s neighbour’s son who worked in Benidorm for a summer? Believe me…many do.

#2: “Translation is easy peasy”

In the real world, translators and agencies don’t press buttons to produce magically accurate translations. In the real world, translators research their subjects, produce draft translations, agonise over vocabulary choices and struggle with complex layouts. Translation is not easy; it can be, but on the whole translation takes time and it takes effort.

In fact, translation is so difficult I gave it up! Yes, I did Turkish to English translations for 6 months before I decided the headaches were a bad sign. Having to simultaneously concentrate on two different texts is mentally exhausting; you are continuously flipping between two languages and two mind frames. Sometimes getting one sentence pitch-perfect can take up to an hour.

Translation is not easy – it’s hard, technical work that needs time and needs respect.

#3: “You can use Google to translate”

For many people when you mention ‘translation’ they start to think or talk about machine translations or software. Google Translate for example is seen by some as their answer to all translation needs. It’s free. It’s cheap. It’s accurate.

No it isn’t accurate. If you believe this then you don’t understand machine translation. No translation software can and ever will be able to completely take the place of a human translators. This is because computers do not understand what language is, how it is used, the subtleties within it and the ever changing use of it. Computers may be able to translate simple one-dimensional sentences but they will never be able to tackle the complexities within literature or technical texts.

Machine translations are getting better and better but they are by no means complete. If you want to understand the gist of something in another language, then fine, but anything else, don’t trust it.

#4: “Professional translation isn’t necessary”

OK, it is true that you don’t always need a “professional translator”. There are many good people out there who can translate superbly but do not have professional qualifications or accreditations. However, there are also many good people out there who could fix your car but does that mean you bypass the mechanic?

If you want your translations to be accurate and professionally prepared then an experienced translator is crucial. They understand the language, the sector or specific topics, the terminology, working to deadlines, formatting, translation protocols and how best to interpret and present your translations.

So next time you need a translation, think how important it is for you to get it right. If it’s important – use a professional.

#5: “Everyone speaks English now. I don’t need a translation.”

In short, if you think this, you haven’t done much travelling abroad. Yes, a lot more people speak English than they did 20 years ago but to think that absolves anyone of having to translate materials, presentations, websites, marketing copy, advertisements, contracts, etc is nonsense. Everyone doesn’t speak English.

If you are serious about going out into the world and doing business of any kind, you will need translations. Speaking to people in their language builds trust, betters relationships, opens doors for your business or brand. If you want to sell to Turkey, Brazil or Russia – go do it in English and let’s see how far you get.

Comments on this Article: 16

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  1. Andrew says:

    You’re exactly right. What’s even worse is when you get a very poorly written source document that you have to try to clean up in the translation.

    • Rui Costa says:

      … at which point a translator becomes a co-author. All the more reason to have a reliable one at hand, not a fly-by-night.

  2. James says:

    The worst thing I have ever witnessed was a boss handing over a twenty-page contract to a young intern from Krakow saying, “just type up this in Polish.”

  3. Lawri says:

    This is important for any marketer to understand! We don’t realize how idiomatic our language is. Translating ideas/concepts can’t be done in a word-for-word fashion. I used to write ad copy for a Hispanic agency, which would then be translated into Spanish. Our translator worked hard to understand our concepts and the benefits we were trying to convey so that he could express them in Spanish in ways that would be relevant to the audience. It wasn’t easy.

  4. Alex Great says:

    The author is both right and wrong.
    The truth is that anyone who knows more than one language can translate – the quality will be different though and it depends on the complexity of the job. It’s like anyone who can boil water can make boiled eggs and if that’s all you need – it’s adequate but you will not be calling that person “Chef”
    If you want to make a good impression go for the most expensive translator with the best references and offer to pay above market price. If you don’t care – haggle :-)

  5. Hatem Ensour says:

    I am a translator, translating from English into Arabic and vice versa. Most people think that translation is just only a knowledge of two languages and Google can do it. We should make much more efforts to change those ideas about translation in the market.

    • .Pattisan says:

      HATEM -I am sure you are aware there is a difference between ancient Arabic and modern. Over the years I can tell when a translation allowed our “modern” influences and technologies to
      effect their translation which means that I have to put on my “700AD” head wear and adjust the translation I am given. Even my 4 years of Latin doesn’t help me there. Any person writing by candlelight is going to write differently from a person 900 yeaars later.Arabs have a long history of respecting knowledge and
      learning which the white western cultures have been unwilling to accept or acknowledge.

  6. Rui Costa says:

    The article emphasizes neither the difference between translation and localization, nor how crucial a professional and knowledgeable job is.
    It’s not “mechanic-”, but “surgeon-important”: if I had a tenner for every disaster “translation” I’ve witnessed so far, I could retire today to my own Caribbean island.

    A good translator between any two languages must at least be able to write decently in another two. The background and perspective therefrom will afford them an efficient and elegant way out of many a predicament.

    Today’s Internet-based sweatshop market has cannibalized the profession. When they enter the auction-minded rat race it has become, by selling price instead of value, translators share the blame.

  7. Carolyn Pinto says:

    I’m sure this article reflects the author’s actual expeiences, but as a regular user of translation services, I feel the tone is bit defensive. A positive tone goes a long way in covincing people of the value of something.

  8. Michelle A. Mead says:

    Once more, I have been approached by people with something to translate. They have just sent me a Christmas card, and I realize that they don’t think they are going to have to pay for the translation. Why do some people think that translating is an intellectual exercise, like doing a crossword puzzle, and that they don’t have to pay for it? Do doctors work for free? Lawyers? The police? I worked for three years to get my degree, and I’d like to get some respect for the long, hard hours I studied.

  9. Kevin B says:

    Really good piece, but you might want to correct “take the place of a human translators” (#3). ;)

  10. Papp Andrea says:

    I totally agree with all the five issues. Yes, quite a few people think translation is as easy as ABC. Well, not at all! And it pertains even more to literary translation.I am convinced, literary translation is art and at the same time creation. Yes the translator has to create a piece of art which is understandable by the target readers but at the same time s/he is not allowed to rewrite the source text. Well, this is not an easy task at all! In the case of literay translation , I think, the most important thing is to give back the style and the atmosphere of the original work. And this needs good command of the two languages, excellent knowledge of the age when the novel/poem/ short story etc was written, and last but not least some creative talent, as well.I’d dare to say,the best case ‘d be if writers, poets were translators themselves. Anyway, this whole business is not that clear-cut at all. To end my comment I’d quote two absolutely different opinions: 1. There is no such thing as translation
    2. Translation is writing.

  11. Jon England says:

    Great article, I empathise with each of these points.

  12. Samba Lam says:

    People realize this only when they are asked to translate a document that deals with a domain other than theirs.

  13. Apego says:

    Why should the translator do it instead of “them”? Because translators do it better.

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