20 Things Translators Know But Most People Don’t

What is something that seems obvious in your profession? You can probably come up with dozens of facts people outside of your field simply don’t seem to get. The language industry is no exception.

There are many preconceptions about translations and translators, as well as things known almost exclusively by people of the industry. I found this lovely list written by a colleague, Alice Tsymbarevich, and decided it to share it with my own twist. Enjoy!

1. Knowing a language is not the same as being able to professionally translate or interpret to/from it. A translation is a special set of skills that takes years to master and put together (and it’s not even a finite set of skills, new products, technologies and trends appear all the time).

2. Being able to translate FROM a language does not mean being able to translate TO it. In fact, it does not even mean being able to speak it. If a translator says that their translation pair is En-Fr, it means they translate from English into French only. Translation in both directions will be marked as En-Fr-En. And professional translators only produce works in languages they are native speakers – generally two at most (and we’re already talking about a small fraction of the translator community).

3. Some translators have specializations because different types of text require different approaches, different experience and different abilities. Some are specialized in SEO and can provide SEO translation and localization to bring more website traffic and get publicity for businesses. Some are better at terminology-filled legal texts. Some have a knack for translating poetry. Yet others are able to create concise and efficient instruction manuals, where a fiction-translator may easily get lost. And, of course, some translators are awesome jacks-of-all-trades! Specialized translators usually have a personal connection with their field. I received an IT degree, so I became an expert in software localization. Many medical translators have an educational background in the field, etc.

4. Translating fiction is actually more difficult than translating technical texts, not the other way around. Translating ads and catchy slogans is the worst. Creativity and cultural differences are quite an explosive cocktail. Such translations take great talent.

5. Spoken translation is called interpreting. An interpreter is not necessarily a good translator. A translator is not necessarily a good interpreter. The skill sets are completely different. A well-trained factory foreman with a decent fluency in a foreign language will give a much better tour of the premises to a foreign delegation than than a hired professional translator. Or than an non-specialized interpreter, for that matter.

6. Modern translation studies support the view that the “word-for-word translation” and word equivalency are myths. A translator’s worst nightmare is a client asking to “just translate a couple of words”. Broadly speaking, a translator turns one text with its context into another text with a corresponding context, not a string of words into a string of their dictionary counterparts. Even machine translation engines have given up this approach long ago.

7. Numbers may also require localization from one syntactic system into another. E.g. English 1,000, unless translated into French correctly as 1 000, will mean “one and zero thousandths”.

8. Translating/creating movie subtitles has specific rules: every language has a certain limit of how long a subtitle line is the best for the audience, how to choose words (long words may have worse readability for the viewer), how to adapt subtitles for people who are deaf/hard-of-hearing, etc. It’s a discipline in itself and requires yet another set of skills. It’s not something you just jump in as a translation generalist.

9. No, machine translation is not a valid replacement for an actual translator. Unless we are dealing with an extremely narrow and specialized context. No, Google Translate will not give you a decent translation of the ad for your product. Nor will your “nephew who’s spent a year studying abroad”. It may help you understand what your friend who lives abroad posted on Facebook. You may be able to have a general idea of what news say on foreign sites. But that’s about it.

10. Certain things, names, traditions, cultural norms etc. may require localization in certain types of texts.

11. A translator is, ultimately, a “complex computer that makes complex choices and considerations on many levels even for the simplest of sentences”. Not a dictionary. Not a language teacher. Not a “word-replacing dummy”.

12. There is professional translation software. No, it’s not like Google Translate or those fancy all-knowing sci-fi machines. What it does is find similar chunks in a standardized text and replaces them with what it has been taught by the translator, making the human’s work faster and less monotonous.

13. Humor is difficult to translate. Jokes and puns don’t necessarily have an equivalent in other languages. In fact, that’s what happens most of the time, so we need to get creative. Sometimes a translator even manages to produce a funnier version of the book than the original!

14. If translators face a bad original (poorly written, awkward phrasing, lack of elegance in the flow of text), they have two options: either to produce an equally ugly translation or to brush it up out of respect for the audience, the subject matter or the target language. In both cases, you never know to whom the audience will give the credit, be it good or bad – to the translator or the author.

15. It can be hard to form an opinion about a translated work of fiction because of the inevitable distortion and the translator’s enormous input into the piece. You don’t truly know a book unless you’ve read the original. It’s first of all true for poetry and the most creative works in general.

16. Unfortunately, translators are often invisible and unnoticeable. Hey, we do appreciate to be credited! It also puts positive pressure on us to deliver.

17. I’ve known translators to refuse to translate a text that offended their personal beliefs or could potentially offend someone else.

18. Everybody knows how a language becomes rusty and partly forgotten unless used. This holds true for the translators as well, so a long break from the profession may be costly for a translator. A professional translator is constantly learning – that’s the only way not to be left behind in the long run. New pages are constantly added to our internal dictionaries.

19. Still, a translator’s mind is always online. I often find myself wondering how I would have translated this or that when some ads or interesting phrases catch my attention. When I see translated materials, I sometimes try to guess what the original read like. And I’m ecstatic when it turns out I’m right!

20. I’m a freelance translator, but that doesn’t mean I work in my pajamas. I actually have fixed hours. I work at least as much as someone in-house and I do take the occasional holidays. I don’t spend my whole time home, nor having fun outside. I just have normal, balanced lifestyle.