Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of misconceptions about translation, most of which basically imply that translation can’t be that difficult and that anyone can translate. Here are some of them, with my response to them.
“I speak a foreign language, so that makes me a translator”
Just because you speak a foreign language, even if you speak it fluently, doesn’t mean you are a good translator. Spoken language is very different from written language, so just because you are able to have a conversation in a certain language, doesn’t mean you are able to write in that language.
“I was raised bilingually, so that makes me a translator”
Being raised bilingually doesn’t automatically make you a translator. There is more to translating than just knowing two languages: you should also be able to translate, ie. convert one language into another in such a way that the translation reads like an original text. There is a difference between being able to understand and use two languages, and being able to translate between them.
“Modern translation tools are so advanced, they can easily replace human translators”
The translation tools currently available are only able to translate a sentence word for word. Since they cannot understand context, they cannot distinguish between different meanings of the same word. In addition, they simply copy the word order of the source language, which often leads to awkward, even unintelligible sentences in the target language, which the translation tool is unable to rewrite. Translation tools can be useful to find out what a text in another language is (roughly) about, but they are as yet unable to create a good, reliable translation.
“I have a text of around 2500 words. Can you get the translation back to me in an hour?”
Most people can’t even type 2500 words in one hour, so translating 2500 words in one hour is out of the question. How many words a professional translator can translate in one hour depends on different factors, such as the type of text (a creative marketing text takes longer to translate than a straightforward manual) and the level of technicality (a text on a highly technical subject with a lot of specific terminology takes longer to translate than a general text without any specific terminology). On average, a professional translator can translate around 250 to 350 words per hour, so it would take 7 to 10 hours to translate a 2500-word text.
“We don’t need to translate our website and marketing materials, all our customers can read English”
Even though these days a lot of people do read English, they often aren’t comfortable enough with the English language to understand all the details and subtleties of the language. As a result, they will be reluctant to buy a product or service which is not offered in their own language. Research shows that even people who speak English confidently still prefer products in their own language.
“We offer advanced dictionary and search tools which will help you create your own translations”
Good (online) dictionary and search tools are extremely useful for translators, because they can save a lot of time in looking up terminology or background information. However, even though correct terminology and a good understanding of the subject matter is very important, it is not enough to create a good translation: you also need excellent translation, language and writing skills to be able to produce a good, correct and readable translation.
“Translation can’t be that difficult, there’s only one possible translation for every text”
Language isn’t an exact science: there never is just one correct answer. Ideas can be phrased in many different ways. Ask ten translators to translate the same sentence and chances are you will get ten different translations which are all correct. Some translations may be more appropriate for the context and the intended target audience than others, which is why it is important to hire a translator who is familiar with the context and target audience.
“What do they teach you at a translation course, do you have to learn all the dictionaries by heart?”
Even if it would be possible to learn all the dictionaries by heart, it’s not very useful for translation, apart maybe from the fact that it will save time because you never have to look up a word again. But knowing the translation of every single word in a specific language doesn’t make you a translator, because translating is more than just translating individual words, it involves translating concepts and images rather than words. This requires a thorough knowledge of the source and target language and, preferably, of the cultural backgrounds of both languages. And this can only be achieved through talent, training and lots and lots of practice.