Top 10 misconceptions about being a translator

If the translator sometimes acts like a traitor, it is because, too often, he or she is betrayed by preconceived ideas about translation.

“Traduttore, traditore” (translator, traitor) perhaps; but if the translator sometimes acts like a traitor, it is because, too often, he or she is betrayed by preconceived ideas about translation. So, here we present the first installment in a series aimed at debunking some of these: ten misconceptions about being a translator.

1. “Anyone who speaks two languages can be a translator”

Just because a person speaks two languages does not mean they can call themselves a translator, even if they are bilingual. Translation requires a range of skills, some of which can be acquired with thorough theoretical and practical training, while others are the result of experience. For example, translation methods and techniques used when translating from English into French are very different from those employed when translating from English into Mandarin. The translator thus needs to adopt a different approach depending on the type of translation: a technical translation is not tackled in the same way as a literary translation.

2. “Translating and interpreting are the same thing”

Not true. Translators translate written texts (legalmedical and marketing translations, among others), while interpreters translate people speaking, whether simultaneously or consecutively.

3. “You need to be a certified or sworn translator to work in the field of translation”

A sworn translator is trained to produce sworn translations, usually necessary for official or legal documents which require certification to prove that they are correct by an officially-recognized translator.  However, there are many other ways of working as a professional translator: translating web pages, business brochures, etc.).

4. “The most important thing for a translator is to master a foreign language”

No, the most important thing for a translator is to understand the foreign language properly and master the technique of writing in his or her mother tongue. Such mastery involves a profound, detailed, versatile, adaptable and creative writing ability.

5. “Good translators are able to translate into their native language, as well as their second language”

The vast majority of translators only translate from their second language into their mother tongue. Why? Because the level of knowledge required in the target language is such that only a highly-trained native is capable of achieving it. The other translators, the minority who translate into several languages, are divided into two groups: the exceptions, who are truly capable of such technical prowess, and the charlatans.

6. “Translation can be done quickly”

Some people think that the translation of a text takes pretty much the same time it took to write it in the first place. Wrong: on average, a professional translator can translate between 250 and 350 words per hour…

7. “Training to be translator involves taking a long course in learning vocabulary in another language”

If you were to learn a bilingual dictionary by heart, translating would be much easier, but… then, it would be a job for computers. Careful! It’s not only about translating words but also ideas and images…

8. “Automatic translation tools are so advanced these days that they can easily replace human translators”

No need to pay professional translation services? Not true! Automatic translation software available today only offers verbatim translation. It does not take into account the context and is unable to distinguish between the different meanings of the same word (polysemy). Automatic translation tools can help to understand what a text says at basic level, but not much more. If you want a good translation, commission it from a human being.

9. “We don’t need to translate our website, as all our clients read English”

While it is true that today, much of the population understands English, according to several studies, visitors to commercial websites do not tend to trust those they cannot read in their mother tongue.

10. “Translation can’t be that hard because there is only one possible translation for each text”

If that were the case, then machine translation tools would work better than they do. Machine translation is not capable of comprehending the context, nuances, connotation and cultural differences…

And what about you? What kind of things do you hear people say about translation? Please share your experiences with us in the comments below.

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