Most professions come with certain preconceptions. This is especially true of more ‘traditional’ professions. We all like to think we’d be able to successfully describe what nurses or plumbers do, for example. However, if we were to follow someone around for a full working day, even in professions we think we know, we might be in for a surprise or five.
This is the case with translators too. We all know something in language A gets transposed into language B. But here’s five myths about the translator profession we’d like to shed some light on to give you a better idea of how we work and what we can help with.
🛠 Myth 1: Translators translate in Word documents
Yes, sometimes we do. We’re not fussy with formats here at Sandberg – we’ll happily work with whatever you have – but it’s likely that we’ll want to convert it into a format that we can use in one of the many computer-aided translation tools (CAT tools) we work with.
CAT tools are smart working environments that translators consider their “home away from home”. We come to work, we log on to a tool, and then we settle in for a little while with the task at hand. Here we have our cupboards and drawers filled with helpful tools that support the work we’re doing.
Exactly what are these tools? CAT tools vary, in both features and layout, but many will have the following:
- Source text (ST) on the left-hand side – The language you’re translating from.
- Target text (TT) on the right-hand side – The language you’re translating into.
- A glossary – A collection of terms, like a mini dictionary, that’s custom-made for a specific client or a specific field. This helps ensure consistency in choice of terminology, from one year to the next, from one translator to another.
- Translation memory matches (TM) – A collection of sentences, that are custom-assembled for a specific client or a specific field. These are graded on their relevance by a percentage. Say you have a sentence in the current project that’s very similar to a few sentences you or somebody else has translated in previous projects. The memory will say: “Hey, look at these!” and you can then choose if you want to reuse and/or rework any of them in your current project. There really are only so many ways “Terms and conditions may vary” can be translated, so reusing snippets like these allows translators to focus their creative energies on the juicier bits that require more mental effort.
- Machine translation (MT) – If desired, machine translation can be included in addition to the translation memory. If there are no relevant suggestions from the translation memory, then a machine translation can be automatically applied. Translators call this part of the job machine translation post-editing (MTPE). This is because we use the suggested machine translation as a basis to edit and rework to a final translation.
- When you’re done, you can take advantage of handy helpers like a spell-checker and a quality control tool to weed out things like typos and double spaces.
Good translators will look beyond their CAT tool to do research and check external reference materials (such as dictionaries, specialised glossaries and visual materials from the client that show how the translation will be displayed in the final layout). But all the helpful tools listed above are often within easy reach in the same interface – readily available at a glance and the click of a button – making not only our lives easier as translators, but ensuring greater quality and consistency in the translation, a win for clients too.
One of the skills translators develop is the ability to quickly decide what to retain and what to discard. Imagine a kind of swooping-down approach… or better yet, Terminator vision! We clock the source text (What is it trying to say?), we glance over to the glossary (Are there any relevant terms?), we zone in on the matches (85% match, but from 2018 – or 75% match, but from 2020? Assessing quality…), then a quick check-in on the MT (Anything worthwhile to incorporate?) to the final construction of the translation itself, using an amalgamation of the resources at hand as well as our own personal cyborg preferences – and voila: Target (text) acquired.
📚 Myth 2: Translators need to be excellent in the language they translate from
My family and friends often think the reason I’m a translator is because of my proficiency in the language I translate from. But for translators, it’s actually the oft-taken-for-granted skills we have in our target languages – the languages we translate into – that are the real reason why we’re great at what we do.
When you start working with or spending time on your target language, you begin to realise the true impact of things like syntax (sentence structure), collocations (words that go naturally together) and myriad other linguistic devices at hand when it comes to crafting eloquent, fluid language. There’s likely to be a few embarrassing discoveries along the way too. A-grade student as I was, I’d still managed to spell something as simple as “on board” incorrectly in Norwegian for most of my life (“om bord” is two words)…
Being proficient in your chosen source language, be it English or something else, is important – we need to be able to understand the source material quickly and correctly (so not just the words themselves, but their meaning, connotations etc.). But as any translator knows, translation is not simply about transferring the words of one language into another. It’s quite possible to have a sentence in a translation that has none of the same words as its source counterpart – but the sentence still means the same thing and sounds good. This is where your excellence as a translator can really shine through.
📑 Myth 3: Translators just need a source text to translate
Yes, but also no. Translators don’t translate in a vacuum. Our translation decisions are informed by everything and anything.
You have an established glossary you’d like us to use? Yes please! A translation memory? Great! Want us to use machine translation? We’d be happy to! A client style guide perhaps? A brief with instructions about style, tone, formality, potential character limitations, intended audience, intended final format, etc.? All-important visual reference materials?
Anything the original content creators used to create the source text are materials the translators should be supplied with. We need them to put our translations into the correct context. In short: we love references! The more the merrier.
💎 Myth 4: Translators don’t need a good quality source text in order to translate
No, sometimes we don’t. Translators are used to working with source texts of varying quality. If there are a number of small grammar mistakes or typos, this isn’t ideal, but most of the time errors like these don’t impede our understanding of what the source text is getting at and can be worked around.
But every profession has a few recurrent grievances and bad source texts are a “pet peeve” for many translators. It can be especially challenging if the source text is unclear or ambiguous, or so imbued with heavy marketing jargon that deciphering what it’s actually trying to say becomes a bit like trying to solve a riddle.
The better the quality of source material, the higher the chance of the target material reaching that same level of polish.
Or when you can tell that the source text copywriter clearly has discovered a newfound love of “stream of consciousness” and helpful linguistic devices like punctuation and paragraphs are cast aside. Some obstacles can be overcome with a bit of research, but if the source text is still unclear, we’ll do the responsible thing and ask our clients for clarification.
So even though sometimes the translation can differ substantially from its source counterpart (at least on a word level if not on a meaning level), it doesn’t mean that we don’t very much use and rely upon the source text as our point of departure. Our job is to ensure the meaning of the source text comes across correctly and naturally in the target language, and our work is infinitely helped if the source lays a solid foundation to work from. The better the quality of source material, the higher the chance of the target material reaching that same level of polish.
🧙 Myth 5: Translators just translate
Some do, and trust us, this can be more than enough. But translators today are often involved in other services too. We can choose to specialise in one or more areas, like market-specific copywriting, transcreation or multilingual SEO.
Many of us do regular editing work like revision and proofreading. Or there’s layout optimisation, where you develop the skill to spot a double space from a mile off and start thinking in typical typesetter ways of such things as kerning and widows/orphans.
How about curating a “naughty list” of abusive language to help improve an online detection tool? There’s no actual translation involved in such a task, yet it’s one of the many services translators as language specialists are able to help with – even if it can sometimes leave us a little flushed!
I hope you’ve learnt something new about what we translators get up to all day. Translation can often seem like a ‘black box’ from the outside: a source text goes in one end and a target text comes out the other. But as you’ve seen, there is a lot more to it than meets the eye.
Behind every great translation is a great translator – one who’s made hundreds of tiny decisions about how to produce the best possible piece of work within the constraints of the project. Looked at from this perspective, translation is truly an art, and one worth valuing.