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).

An idiom a day …

I am fond of proverbs and idioms as they reveal so much about a culture and its people. Being a translator, I am particularly interested to see whether they can or cannot be translated, since it provides a glimpse into the differences and similarities of two cultures – in my case the English and the German. For some reason, I seem to have a particular affinity with idioms involving food. So here is another harvest of food-related expressions – and some of their roots.

Have you ever noticed that it is easier to share food with some people than it is with others? If someone is not easy to get along or deal with, you would say in German: you don’t want to eat cherries with him! (Mit dem ist nicht gut Kirschen essen.) This German saying goes back to the Middle Ages, when cherries were very expensive and only wealthy people could afford to eat them. If they noticed any uninvited, less well-off bystanders joining in the cherry-eating feast, they would humiliate and chase them away by spitting cherry stones at them. Charming.

At the other end of the price scale, we have food-related expressions on both sides of the Channel: something that is cheap as chips in English only costs an apple and an egg (‘n Appel und ‘n Ei) in German. Speaking of apples – someone or something that we treasure is the apple of my eye (mein Augapfel) in both languages too. This expression stems from an Old English text that describes the pupil of the eye as an apple because of its round shape and presumably also because both the fruit and good eyesight were highly valued. Oh, and the word ‘pupil’, which is of Latin origin, did not yet exist in the English language at the time.

One of my favourite English idioms is the nonchalant expression cool as a cucumber. You would get some funny looks, though, if you would try to use this literally translated into German – not so cool in Cologne. Staying with salad ingredients: if you don’t see what is right in front of you, the Germans would say that you have tomatoes in both eyes (Tomaten auf den Augen), whereas in English we would probably declare that person to be blind as a bat (which, to be fair, is on the menu in some places too). Apparently, the figurative tomatoes derive from the bloodshot red eyes of someone who is tired and therefore not able to see properly.

One of my favourite German expressions is the rather comical Rhabarberohren: someone straining his ear to listen to what someone else is saying, even if it is not intended for him, is growing ‘rhubarb ears’. In English we would rather say that someone’s ears are flapping, without any culinary connotation. I like the mental picture of the two combined.

It is only natural, I suppose, that food-related phrases are popular in both languages. Something as fundamental as food and drink will always be talked about and used for reference. Who knows what we will come up with next?

Do you have any favourite food-related idioms and expressions?

Detective work: Six proofreading secrets

You may be forgiven for thinking that proofreading is something anyone with a decent knowledge of grammar and spelling can do. After all, it is just about finding mistakes and adding or deleting the odd comma, isn’t it?

I have been proofreading since I was at university, a lifetime ago. I always had a good grasp of language and would find mistakes that other people had missed. It came naturally to me, and I was confident that I would spot all there was to spot. It wasn’t until I completed my formal training in proofreading that I realised how much more there is to it.

Of course there is the spelling and the grammar – and along came the realisation that I had to look up and double-check more words and rules than I thought I would. It also turned out that my first instinct wasn’t always right. Then there is the issue of consistency: what if a word can be spelled in different ways and they all appear in one text? Do I choose the one I like best? What about hyphenation and quotation marks, font types and sizes, layout and spaces? Do I have to check all of that too? Not to mention the important matter of putting your own personal style aside and not to confuse proofreading with editing (you can read more on that subject here). In short: the list was long, and my eyes were opened.

As a proofreader you take care of the whole text, correct factual errors where they occur, ensure consistency in line with the preferred style of the author and check if the text makes sense, taking the target readership into account. Often this requires more than one proof run and quite some detective work, as you have to check each and every aspect carefully not to miss anything. On top of that, you need to be able to follow a client’s brief, work with a style sheet or produce one yourself, give clear and concise instructions and justify your decisions.

To give you an insight into how a proofreader works and some tips how you can improve your own proofreading skills, I will let you in on six proofreading secrets:

1. Check layout and numbers first
Before you start correcting, have a look at the overall layout and structure of the text. Inconsistencies in font types and sizes, numbering or alignment are easier to spot when the text is still untouched. The same goes for missing or redundant spaces.

2. Run a spellchecker – but don’t rely on it
It doesn’t hurt to run a spellchecker if you are working on a digital document, but be aware that it will not find every error. Words that are spelled correctly will not be flagged, even if they are not intended, for example: ‘then’ instead of ‘when’, ‘for’ instead of ‘four’, ‘claws’ instead of ‘flaws’. I recently proofread a text where no errors were found by the spellchecker. After I had finished proofreading, I realised that I had to make more than 100 changes (deletions and insertions). This illustrates the limits of a spellchecker: it can be used in addition to but not as a replacement for proofreading.

3. Use a rule
Place a rule under the line that you are reading. It helps to focus on the words that are in front of you and keeps your eyes from skipping to other lines. This is simple but very effective.

4. Slow down
When we are reading for pleasure and at our normal speed, our brain tends to auto-correct mistakes as we read. This is why you need to slow down and read every single word when you are proofreading a text. In order to spot mistakes, you need to concentrate on what is actually there without being tempted to read what should be there. It also helps to read aloud and spell out what is written syllable by syllable. Some people even read a text backwards to focus on every single word.

5. Watch out for inconsistencies
When you come across words that can be spelled in two different ways and both spellings appear in the same document, you need to find out which one is used more often than the other and correct accordingly. The same approach applies to hyphenation – there are few set rules, and often it is a matter of making sure that the prevailing style is used consistently.

6. Read again for sense
After you have proofread a paragraph for errors, read it again to check if it makes sense. You may stumble upon conflicting messages or components of a sentence that don’t go together. If something is unclear or ambiguous, you may need to query it with the author (or indeed yourself, if that’s you).

This is just a glimpse into the world of a proofreader, but I hope it has given you a more detailed idea of what proofreading entails as well as some handy tips for your own use.

Proofreading does – and therefore requires – a lot more than meets the eye. Some of it may come naturally (a good grasp of grammar and spelling), but a lot of it takes formal training and practice (eye for the detail, in-depth knowledge and good judgement). What I enjoy most about proofreading is that you never stop learning: not only do you get to read about different subjects while you are at it, you also encounter new challenges waiting to be solved. It often feels like detective work, and if you fancy yourself to be a bit of a Sherlock, you are in for a thrill.

Find out more about the proofreading services at ablewords.

Beyond the obvious reasons: The benefits of learning a language

With English being the most widely used language in the world, why should learning a new language be so rewarding?

When I grew up in Germany, I started to learn English at the age of ten and a second foreign language of my choice (French) around the age of twelve, just like everyone else, and I studied these languages until I finished school aged 19. By that time I was fairly well equipped to get by in two foreign languages. Today pupils in Germany are learning English already in primary school, in a playful way. They will be even better prepared to communicate in this language in the future.

Here in the UK, I often hear from people that they have learnt another language for a couple of years in school and then forgotten all about it. What many are left with is the odd phrase that they can hurl at foreigners in the most charming way when they meet them, but that’s about it. On the face of it, this is perfectly understandable: unlike German, English is the most widely used language in the world, and even in remote areas you can find people who are able to speak it. So, if everyone is speaking English, why should you learn another language?

This is where it gets interesting, because if you dig a little deeper, the benefits of learning a language go far beyond being able to buy a baguette on holiday.

One advantage of learning another language becomes obvious when you travel. For even though you can get by speaking English in most places (or, if that fails, with pointing and smiling), it is much easier to understand another culture when you are able to speak the language to some extent. Learning about other cultures in turn helps you to understand more about your own culture, as it challenges how you see the world around you. Travelling becomes more enriching and exciting, beyond the sightseeing and foreign foods. You may even make friends along the way you would have never talked to otherwise.

Knowing another language makes you more employable, both at home and abroad. I never had any trouble getting a job when I moved to the UK, not even in the early years of the recession – because of my language skills. Employers were happy to train me on the actual job because they needed me for my German language skills. Simple as that. Even though English is the common language for business: if you want to sell a product or a service in a different country, or if you are a global company with employees worldwide, you still need to be able to communicate with your customers and colleagues in their native tongue in order to succeed.

Studies have shown that learning and practising another language is also good for your mental health, that it keeps Alzheimer’s at bay and that it makes you smarter because it exercises the brain and improves the memory and in doing so helps you to think on your feet. (No wonder translators and interpreters are such a healthy and clever bunch.) You can read more on that subject here and here.

The greatest benefit of learning a language goes even beyond these practical reasons. There is a saying: Learn a new language and you become a new person. I found this to be very true. If you learn a new language, you not only learn grammar and vocabulary but also a whole new way of thinking and perceiving the world. This may be subtle if you are learning a language of a culture that is close to your own, but it is fascinating nonetheless. It must be even more exciting if you immerse yourself in a language of a very different culture. I certainly think and feel in a different way in English than I do in German. To realise this, you need to know the language really well and become part of its culture. It may sound like hard work, but if you have mastered the basics of a language, it becomes a lot easier to enhance your knowledge if you are living in the country where it is spoken and where you are surrounded by it every day.

People have different reasons to learn another language, be it out of necessity, a passion for a country and its people, to further their career or just out of curiosity. It doesn’t matter what the original impulse to learn a language is: the rewards will be on many levels.

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.

I may be some time

Being cut off from the grid for a stretch of time is inconvenient in any situation. If you are working freelance from home, it can also become quite tricky to keep your business running. As we are recently experiencing unusually harsh weather conditions in the UK, it seems a good time to become more prepared for such events.

When we had a power cut that lasted for around 51 hours following a storm last autumn, I was unable to do my normal work and quite surprised how little I actually could do at all. I made a promise to myself to be better prepared next time and to implement emergency measures as soon as we were back on the grid. So, four months later – are these measures in place? Well, let me start at the beginning.

It started in the morning. My other half was already out of the house. He’d had a hot shower and a coffee, and I was just about to make my first cup, when the lights went out. At first I thought the power cut would only last for a little while, perhaps a couple of hours. Still, I needed a coffee, so I went to get our camping stove and the gas bottle we had left from our last camping trip. Luckily there was enough gas to boil the water for that all important first cuppa in the morning.

I sat in the kitchen with my cup and read the papers, then the magazines from the professional bodies I belong to. This was great, because I usually never get round to do this thoroughly. I checked my emails on my smart phone to see if anything urgent was waiting for my attention. The battery was running low, so I had to be quick. I noticed an enquiry and texted the client to say that I would get back to them as soon as we had our power back and give them a proper quote. Then the phone went dead.

As the day went on, I realised that this situation could last a little longer than usual and that I had to do something about it. It is amazing how much we rely on electricity for almost everything we do without giving it a second thought. No electricity meant in our case (as we don’t have gas): no heating, no hot water, no stove, no kettle, no light, no phone, no internet, no nothing. Brilliant.

But there were a few things I could try:

1. Dig out the old analogue phone. Fortunately we still had the old analogue phone that we used before we switched to wireless and digital. When I plugged it in, I already felt a little less cut off. At least people could reach me now, and I could reach them.

2. Go online via mobile broadband. Or so I thought. Here’s a tip: if you do have a mobile broadband stick and haven’t used it for some time, check it before they announce bad weather on the news. Make sure it has some funds on it to buy your online time (mine had) and that it is still registered (mine wasn’t). I could not re-register my mobile broadband stick because – ta-dah! – I could not go online, so that was that.

3. Use the good old dial-up method. Remember how we used to log on to the internet before we had broadband? Unfortunately I didn’t have the right cable anymore, but even if I had, I would have needed a number to start the dial-up connection. As it was, I could not even look it up on my oh-so-smart phone because the battery was flat.

In the end, I gave up trying to access the internet and instead drove to my mum-in-law for a cuppa and a chat and a warm shower, charging up my mobile phone as well as my own batteries. Fortunately I did not lose any business during these two days, but I promised myself to be better prepared for the next time and not to fall into the same traps again. Unfortunately it is very easy to take electricity for granted, once you have it back …

Proofreading or editing – that is the question

The line between proofreading and editing can seem a little blurred sometimes. However, there are a couple of clear indicators to straighten it out. If you are not sure whether your text needs proofreading or editing, here are some pointers to help you decide.

One way to make a distinction between the two services is to look at what stage of the process the task is performed. Proofreading is generally carried out once the text has been edited and the final version is complete. So it’s editing first, proofreading last.

Another way is to look at what the task actually includes. A proofreader looks for and corrects errors and inconsistencies in grammar, punctuation, spelling and layout and does not otherwise interfere with the text. If there is a need for clarification, the proofreader merely raises a query so that the author or editor can take the final decision. Proofreading generally does not include changing the style or content of a text.

Editing a text (also called copy-editing) involves working on the text to enhance its quality. An editor specifies the overall style in view of the intended readership and alters the text (in collaboration with the author) when he or she thinks that a change is necessary, either for consistency, accuracy or to improve the flow. The editor also corrects spelling and grammatical errors, but – provided there is a separate proofreading process afterwards – the main focus is on the style and content of the text.

With these two indicators at hand – the stage of the process and the actual activity involved – it becomes easy to distinguish between editing and proofreading.

Proofreading and editing translations

Just like any other text, regardless of the language, a translation should be proofread at the end (unless it is for information only) to ensure that the translated text is error-free and consistent. Many translators proofread the text themselves once it is finished or ask a colleague to do so. Being familiar with the techniques of a proofreader is essential here, especially when checking your own text. You can read more on that subject here. For translations that are going to be printed or published it is advisable to employ a second (and preferably professional) proofreader in the target language to double-check the final version.

A translation may be reviewed by another translator with the same language combination, particularly on specialised subject matters. This can be regarded as editing, as it involves checking and, if required, changing the content of the translation itself to maintain accuracy or improve the overall quality of it. Again, this should be done before the final proofreading.

Treat a translation like any other text and you will know if and when it requires editing (reviewing) or proofreading.

It pays to know what you need

To illustrate all of the above in practice, I will conclude with an example that involves all three services: translating, editing and proofreading.

With the rise of machine translations, both translators and proofreaders (indeed sometimes confused in the process) often get asked to “proofread” a text which, on closer inspection, turns out to be a machine translation. The idea to run a free machine translation and ask someone to proofread it in order to use the text as a translation seems to become increasingly popular, but it usually backfires as it can lead to time-consuming and costly consequences.

As we have established earlier, in order to proofread you need a finished text. Depending on the subject and length of the text, this may not be the case with machine translations. More often than not the result of a machine translation is an incoherent and hardly comprehensible text that is difficult to read. What is required here is in fact either a substantial editing service to turn it into a readable and attractive text or a completely new and adequate translation of the original text – the latter often being the more efficient and less expensive alternative. Only then can we think about proofreading the text.

In the end, if you are unsure about the right service for your text, speak to a proofreader or copy-editor – or indeed a translator if you need it in a different language – and ask them for guidance. It is better to establish the true requirements to start with than to end up having to pay for extra services or to rectify a job that wasn’t necessary in the first place. It is quicker too.