More than words

Why being a translator is not the same as being bilingual

When I mention that I am a German translator, people often ask me which other languages I ‘do’. It is indeed a common misconception that a translator is a person who speaks several languages fluently, a bit like a multilingual walking dictionary. In fact, being bilingual (or even multilingual) is only one prerequisite for being a translator. So what does it actually take to be a translator?

Language knowledge
Obviously, a translator needs to be fluent in at least two languages: the source language (from which to translate) and the target language (into which to translate). This entails good command of both languages. Translators generally translate into their mother tongue (first language), since it is the language they are most familiar with. Some also translate the other way round if they master their second language (almost) as well as their first language. This may be the case if you have grown up speaking more than one language or if, as in my case, you live in the country where the second language is spoken and it becomes your first language that you use every day (also called ‘language of habitual use’).

Cultural knowledge
A translator needs to know the culture of the respective countries where the source and the target languages are spoken to be familiar with common phrases, expressions and cultural references and to be able to understand humour, irony, wordplay, etc. To that end, it is vital that a translator lives in each country for a good stretch of time and gets immersed in everyday life.

Writing skills
Translators are writers. Unless you are translating single words for search engine optimisation or a software programme, translating involves stringing sentences together that make sense and read well. If you translate instruction manuals, your writing skills may not be pushed to the limit, but as soon as you translate material that is going to be used to attract customers or enthral a readership, you need to be able to write a translation that is not only accurate but also attractive. For that reason translation is also called transcreation or localisation, as it involves adapting a message for an audience in a different culture while maintaining the content and intent of the original message at the same time. It means finding the right voice as well as the right words in the target language so that the text evokes the same response in the reader.

Subject knowledge
It pays to know about the subject you are translating. Otherwise you will have to look up every other word and research the subject matter in detail for every sentence you are translating. This is why translators usually specialise in a few areas in which they have gained expertise, be it through working in that particular field or a hobby that they pursue with a passion. Of course they can still also translate other, more general texts that don’t command extensive subject knowledge.

Research skills
As a translator, you need to be able to research efficiently and accurately in order to find the correct terms that are commonly used within a particular trade or context. Over time you build up a large glossary you can refer to, but there will always be new terms and phrases that you need to find the right wording for in the target language. A translator doesn’t need to know every single term by heart (unlike interpreters –hats off!), as long as he or she knows where to find the right one when required. This has become a lot easier with the use of the internet, however, there are plenty of dubious and wrong ‘facts’ out there too, so you need to be able to filter out the right ones and know the sources you can trust.

So there we have it: translators are in fact writers who are fluent and competent in at least two languages, with a profound knowledge of more than one culture, expertise in their chosen subject areas and honed research skills. They also have to stay true to the original, adapt to different styles and be unobtrusive in their work, because in the end, the best translations are those that don’t sound like a translation. This is why, at least to me, translating is such an exciting and challenging profession, even if sometimes a little misunderstood.

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