Time to slow down

There is a lot of talk suggesting a growing demand for almost instant translations lately. Translators are being advised to adapt their skills and keep up with evolving technologies in order to provide an increasingly speedy service. It is not very clear, however, where this demand actually comes from, or who will benefit from this new approach. So what’s behind the hype?

First of all: I am not against technology in translation. I use a CAT tool to help me provide consistent translations. Fuzzy matches are indeed welcome time savers as I don’t have to look up how I have translated a similar sentence earlier. So I am all for the development of tools to improve my work.

There is a difference, however, between using a tool to provide better translations and post-editing an automatically generated pre-translation. What is the purpose behind the latter: is it to provide a better translation or to provide a quicker translation? And is a quicker translation a better translation for the client?

Back to basics: what exactly is a translation?

There is a clear consensus that a translation is more than a transfer of words from one language into the framework of another. Translation is not only about vocabulary, grammar and syntax (“the mechanics”) but also about voice, purpose and style (“the spirit”). There are cultural aspects, target readerships and customer specifics to take into account.

When translating a text, we carefully assess the register and writing style of the source text in order to create a translation that reads like a genuine text in the target language while reflecting the style and evoking the same effect as the original. We make a myriad of decisions and choices based on our knowledge of and feel for a language – something a machine is not yet able to do, and probably never will. Translation is an intricate creative process, not an off-the-shelf commodity.

Do we really need to reinvent the wheel?

A machine translation transfers words, sentences and structures from one language into another using ever more clever algorithms. The mechanics may be there, but the spirit is missing. Therefore it is, strictly speaking, not even a translation. Of course, machine translations have their place. For someone who just wants to quickly get the gist of things, they can be useful indeed. But with regard to the process of a true translation, the key question is: why replace something that works perfectly well – the skills and expertise of professional translators – with something that cannot reproduce the same quality and thus needs editing?

Especially at a time where we still have to educate potential clients and the wider world that a translation involves more than just copying words from one language into another, I fear that we are not doing ourselves and our profession a favour if we jump onto the bandwagon of producing ever quicker auto-suggested post-edited machine translations.

Who says quicker is better, anyway?

Good-quality products take time, so how can it be different for services? No one would throw some pre-formulated sentences at copywriters to produce advertising copy quicker. No one would suggest a few diseases to doctors upfront in order to speed up the process of diagnosis. Why not? Because prompts can actually hinder creative and analytical processes instead of speeding them up, and the end result may not be desirable for the client. It seems to me that the only ones profiting from this new trend in translation are organisations that supply technologies that are not helping translators to do a better job but taking the actual job out of their capable hands, albeit with an inferior result.

The future of translation is in our hands

We should ask ourselves what we as professionals actually want to produce and what we want to be seen as. Do we want to produce translations or become machine editors? Do we want to be seen as enablers of good communication, or do we want to give in to pressures of an industry that dismantles the core element of our work and become mere sidekicks?

I think we should embrace technologies we can use as a tool to improve – even speed up – our work because our clients deserve the best possible service. Speed alone, however, is not the solution. Slowing down and taking great care is usually what improves a translation. So perhaps we should focus more on honing our translation skills than learning yet another software programme. And until machines can actually match the quality of the translations we humans already provide, we should take charge of the beautiful craft that is our business.

Glossary of translation-related terms

Looking for a translator but feeling a bit confused by the lingo? Here are the basic terms explained.

In two languages; or a person who speaks two languages fluently. Translators are bilingual (or even multilingual), but not every bilingual person is a > translator.

CAT tool
Software used by many translators to assist them in producing consistent translations. Useful for creating > termbases for individual clients and accessing previous translations (> TM).

Continuing professional development. Training that professional translators do throughout their career to hone their language, business and translation skills and subject knowledge.

Editable format
If the words of a text can be counted and changed directly, the format is editable. It is easier to work with editable Word documents than with PDFs or scanned documents.

Fuzzy match
Shows previously translated text segments that are similar to but not exactly the same as the actual segment that is being translated. It helps to produce consistent translations.

An interpreter orally translates speech from one language into another and vice versa. Often confusingly called > translator.

Orally translating speech into a different language or sign language and vice versa, usually during a conversation between two or more people who speak different languages.

Another term for > translation that emphasizes the need to adapt a text according to cultural aspects and local customs in the > target language.

Language service provider. Another term for translation agency. These days also used for technology firms offering > machine translations or other language tools.

Machine translation
Software that transfers words, sentences and syntax from one language into another using algorithms. Often used to get the gist of things, but strictly speaking not a > translation.

Mother tongue
The language we grow up and feel most familiar with. I grew up in Germany and lived there for the first 29 years of my life, so German is my mother tongue.

Native speaker
Someone who speaks their > mother tongue. Translators should generally be native speakers of the > target language, although reasonable exceptions are possible.

Reading a text very slowly and carefully in order to spot spelling and grammar mistakes, inconsistencies and layout issues. Not to be confused with > revision.

The intention behind a text. A text can be written to attract, inform or amuse an audience, to discuss theories, sell products, give comfort … The list is endless.

Entire segments of a text that are an exact match. These can be translated quicker using > TM and are sometimes charged at a reduced rate.

Comparing a translation against the > source text to check the accuracy of the translation and to correct any spelling or grammar mistakes. Often confusingly called > proofreading.

Source language
Language that the > source text is written in. If you send an English text to a translator for translation into another language, English is the source language.

Source text
Original text that is supposed to be translated into another language. It is the text that you send to the translator.

Subject area in which a translator has acquired extensive knowledge thanks to a previous career and/or continuing professional development (> CPD).

Target audience/readership
The people you have in mind when writing a text. They can be potential or existing customers, colleagues, experts or other end users, depending on the > purpose of the text.

Target language
Language that the translation will be written in. If you send an English text to a translator for translation into German, the target language is German.

Target text
Translation of the > source text in another language (the > target language). It is the text that the translator sends back to you.

> Bilingual database of terms (glossary) that helps to manage approved terms for individual clients and to use terms consistently in translations.

Translation memory. > Bilingual database containing text segments (usually sentences) that have already been translated earlier for reference in future translations.

Another word for > translation. It emphasizes the fact that a translation is more than a transfer of words from one language into another and that some aspects can’t be translated directly.

Creating a text in another language than the > source text that reads like a genuine text in the > target language while reflecting the style and evoking the same effect as the original.

A translator translates written text from a > source language into a > target language (usually their > mother tongue). This can be texts, subtitles or other forms of written material.

Word count
Amount of words in a written document. A translation fee is usually based on the word count of the > source text or on the estimated time it will take to translate it (hourly rate).

Back to the top

Have I forgotten anything? Are there any other translation-related terms you are not sure about? Send them in!

Proofreading or review? Two often confused terms in translation

Whenever I get asked to ‘proofread’ something that involves a translation, I make sure to ask what the client actually wants me to do. Should I check the translation against the source text to make sure the translation is correct? Or should I check the text for spelling and grammar errors?

The former would be a review (or revision), the latter a proofreading task. These two terms often get mixed up in the context of translation. Confusing these two terms can have unwanted consequences, however, both for the client and the proofreader. So let’s clarify the meaning of both terms to avoid misunderstandings.

Fortunately, it is very easy to distinguish between the two. Just ask yourself how many texts and how many languages are involved in the task:

Reviewing a translation involves 2 texts in 2 languages (source and target)
Proofreading a translation involves 1 text in 1 language (target)

It is important to make this distinction, because reviewing and proofreading are indeed two separate tasks for which two different skill sets – and often two different people – are needed:

Reviewing (2 texts – 2 languages)
Reviewing a translation requires a skilled translator with the appropriate language combination who is able to compare a translation against the source text in order to check if the translation is accurate and adequate for the purpose and edit or correct it where necessary.

Proofreading (1 text – 1 language)
Proofreading a translation (or indeed any other text) requires a trained proofreader who works in the target language, who is not only experienced in spotting grammar and spelling errors, ambiguities and inconsistencies, but who is also trained in the techniques that enable her or him to do a professional job.

What if the client wants both?

Often the client expects the ‘proofreading’ job to include both: review and proofreading. This is entirely reasonable. As a client, you want an excellent translation which is also free of errors and inconsistencies. But to avoid misunderstandings, it helps to clarify what exactly it is you require: review, proofreading or both.

Equally, if you are the supplier of the service, it pays to double-check what your client actually wants from you, as you might not deliver the required service otherwise. And if the client wants both review and proofreading, you either need a translator who is also a trained proofreader or you need to separate the two tasks and employ a translator for the review and a proofreader for the proofreading.

Why is that necessary? For the same reason that not everyone who speaks two languages is a translator – not everyone who knows a thing or two about spelling and grammar is a proofreader. Trust me, I thought I was a pretty good proofreader before I did my formal training, but it opened my eyes. There is a lot more to the work of a proofreader than meets the eye.

Often translators are expected to do both the review and the proofreading task, even if they are not trained proofreaders. As a trained proofreader, I think that’s a risky thing to do, both for the untrained proofreader and the client. So if you are a translator dealing with proofreading as part of your work, be it proofreading your own translation or someone else’s, it makes perfect sense to diversify and train as a proofreader in order to be able to offer both services – reviewing and proofreading – professionally.

If you are a translator interested in some formal proofreading training, or if you would like to refresh your proofreading skills, check out organisations such as the Publishing Training Centre London or the Society for Editors and Proofreaders for their proofreading courses.

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).

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.

How to get a good translation – five top tips

You need a translation but you are not sure how to go about it? Here are five useful tips to put you on the right track.

1. Find the right translator
Appoint a professional translator, not a colleague or a relative with some knowledge of the target language. You would not ask your niece to write your marketing content either, would you? (Unless, of course, she is a marketing expert.) Professional translators are writers who produce texts that read well in the target language, and they generally translate into their native language or language of habitual use. If you work on a specialised subject, make sure your translator is knowledgeable in that field too.

2. Finalise your text before commissioning the translation
Making changes to the original text when the translation is already underway means added time and cost.

3. Allow enough time
Consider how much time it takes to craft the original version of your text. If you want a good translation that reflects the style and content of your message in the target language, don’t leave it to the last minute. Ask the translator for a realistic time frame.

4. Communicate
Tell your translator what the translation is going to be used for and who the target readership is. This way you will get charged for the right service and receive a translation that is suitable for the intended use.

5. Double-check
Have the translation proofread once it is formatted, especially if it is going to be printed, to avoid last-minute errors that may have slipped in at typesetting stage. If you work in a specialised field, it can be useful to ask an expert who speaks the target language to double-check the terminology. Even with a sound knowledge of the subject, a translator might have picked a term that is technically correct but not the one that is commonly used in practice.

More information on buying translations

The gist of it

Would you buy a product or service from someone you don’t know if you only roughly understand what is being offered?

The answer might be yes if you are on holiday in a foreign country, presented with a variety of desserts you have never heard of in a language you don’t speak fluently. You probably take the risk and try something new. After all, it is not going to cost much and you could get something delicious.

The answer is more likely to be no if what’s on offer is more complex or a serious investment, such as a piece of equipment or a valuable service. In this case we usually like to understand – rather than just get the gist of – what it is before we purchase it.

It is astonishing how often you find companies offering great services or products on their website with a machine translation for people who speak a different language. They clearly intend to look after clients in other language markets. However, would you be attracted to a text which is incoherent and gibberish?

A poor translation can easily put readers off your website altogether. It might even be safer to have no translation instead and rely on the assumption that people understand your language well enough to make a purchase decision. As good as they are for translating single words, machine translations are no match for the human brain when it comes to context and sense.

If you really want to attract customers and get a foothold in a different language market, do it properly and get a translation that works for you, done by a professional translator who knows how to convey your message in the target language and culture. This way you help potential customers understand who you are and what you can do for them. They will thank you for it.