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.

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).