Five common myths about translators

Everyone knows what a builder does, or a firefighter, or a teacher. Why is it so different when it comes to translators?

Perhaps it has something to do with the low profile that translators tend to keep. They usually work behind the scenes and are hardly ever recognised for what they do. In fact, often their work goes particularly unnoticed when it is exceptionally good – when nobody can tell that it is a translation.

By addressing five of the most stubborn myths about translators I regularly come across, I hope to shine a light on what translators actually do and what they don’t do:

1. Translators are present when people who speak different languages are having a conversation, translating from one language to the other
It is easy to confuse the two, because they both translate something from one language to another, but the person orally translating speech or conversation is an interpreter, and the person translating written text is a translator. The task may seem similar, but actually there are two distinct skill sets required for these two different professions.

2. Translators speak many languages
When I say that I am a translator, people often ask what other languages I speak, apart from English and German. This is very flattering. However, many translators only translate from one second language into their mother tongue. In order to be a translator, you don’t have to speak as many languages as possible. Instead you need to know your working languages really well, be familiar with the respective cultures and become an expert in your chosen subject areas. Of course, there are also translators who work in more than two languages, but my brain can only process two languages without overheating.

3. Translators know every word in the other language by heart
As soon as I say what I do for a living, people ask: what’s [insert any word that comes to mind] in German? The term may be something that I happen to know, but it may as well be something I have never heard of, neither in English nor in German. Despite common belief, translators are not walking dictionaries – although that would be handy sometimes. What translators are good at, though, is researching terms and finding the best equivalent in the other language within the given context. Interpreters, on the other hand, do need to be able to think on their feet and know the terms from memory pretty quickly – I take my hat off to them. However, this does not mean that they are walking dictionaries either. Walking dictionaries don’t exist.

4. Translators translate a text word for word into another language
A lot of people think that a translator translates a text word for word, and the end result is the same text in a new language. As a consequence, they may think that a translator charges far too much and ask a machine to do the job for nothing. Only thing is: a text is not just an array of words within a fixed system that works in any language. As we all know, a lot of words have more than one meaning, so translators can’t just randomly pick one and be done with it. Translators not only find the right expression within the specific context, they also ensure that the text reads well within the syntax of another language. They have to convey the same meaning and style in a different language, but they can’t necessarily use the same words in order for the text to work. There are cultural connotations to consider and ambiguities to avoid. Try asking a machine to do that for you.

5. Translators translate in a matter of minutes what took days to create in the source language
This is related to misconception 4. The same people who expect that a translator can translate a text in no time do so because they believe that all it takes to translate a text is to exchange the words of the source language with the words of the target language. They may as well use a machine. A proper translation of a text needs more time and care. Of course, translators don’t have to invent the text from scratch. But they still have to create a translation that has the same quality and fluency as the original. If you put a lot of effort into creating a meaningful text in the source language, you’ll be wise to give the translator enough time to craft the best possible version in the target language.

With these five myths blown to pieces, you will be able to see the real translator next time you meet one. And you can really impress them if you ask them what language combination they work in or which subjects they specialise in, instead of asking them for a word. After all, you would not ask a builder for a brick either, would you?

Read more on the topic of translation.

Find out about translation services at ablewords.

If these insights have sparked your interest in the translating profession, you can get more information on the website of the Institute of Translation & Interpreting (ITI).