Translation Myths

As long as people from different parts of the world have been communicating there has been a need for translators. As the world has become a smaller place and globalization has brought peoples into greater contact, the need for translators has grown and so too has the various misconceptions and myths about translation. Translators must know more than just the vocabulary and grammar of a language. It’s not as simple as sitting down with dictionaries and translating content word for word.

What follows is a list of some of the most common myths about translation.

1) Bilingual People Can Translate

Being raised bilingually is not something that makes one a translator by nature. You can’t simply wake up one day and decide to do quality Spanish / English translation just because you understand the languages, are fluent with them, or are even a native speaker of both. Spoken language is different from written language and those who can fluently speak a language aren’t necessarily good writers. Translation, however, is much more than writing and an understanding of translation theory is a necessity. One needs to understand the problems and issues that are inherent in translating languages.

A translator needs to know such things as when it is important that the cultural elements of the original text be transferred to the translated version and when they should not be. Different approaches need to be taken when translating technical texts, legal documents, philosophical writings and fiction.

2) Translation Can Be Done Quickly

Translation is a process that takes a considerable amount of time. It isn’t reasonable to assume that translators can easily translate material in a flash. Far too many people think that translation is a simple task that can be accomplished quickly, as if one just substitutes Spanish words for English words.

A competent typist may be able to finish copying a 3,000 word document in under an hour. However, you would be hard pressed to find anyone capable of typing thousands of words in an hour where translation is concerned. The actual number of words that a translator can produce in an hour can vary depending on the type of text that they’re dealing with. However, a good rule of thumb is about 3,000 words per day. For comparison, this article (including the title and subheadings) has 1,092 words.

Translators must spend a great deal of time to ensure that the finished product looks like an original work. They spend time on:

* Looking up definitions, synonyms, word usage, etc.
* Considering context, concepts, semantics, ambiguity, cultural influences, verbiage, etc.
* Editing and proofing grammar as well as mechanics such as punctuation and capitalization

3) A Translator Can Translate Both Directions Equally

Translating from English to Spanish as well as Spanish to English is something a translator generally should not do. While there are some gifted translators in the world who can handle both directions, most translators limit themselves to one direction for good reason. It’s not like a highway where traffic flows easily in two directions.

Regardless of how well a translator has learned additional languages, one language will be dominant. It is generally preferable for a translator to translate into his primary language. A skilled and trained individual translating into his dominant or native language will be able to more adequately understand the subtle nuances of his own language than a non-native speaker would.

4) Translators Can Translate Anything If They Know The Language

People specialize for a reason. No one can be an expert in everything. Knowledge of a language is obviously necessary for translating but understanding a language doesn’t make a translator an expert in all things. To be able to translate a particular subject area, a translator should have an intimate knowledge of that field. Medical translators, for example, develop a large vocabulary of medical and biological terms and have an understanding of human anatomy and medical procedures. A translator who doesn’t understand what he is translating is doomed to produce a poor translation.

5) Computer Translation Is Pretty Reliable

While translation software may be useful for certain tasks – it might help the reader get the general gist of the text – it is far from being a reliable source for translation. The problem with computer translation is that the software doesn’t have a deep knowledge of the language. It doesn’t understand ambiguity, know how to deal with irregularities in the language, and is prone to inaccuracies due to multiple meanings for a single word. A human translator is able to comprehend context and has an understanding of the culture that has helped shape the language.

Computers have been known to come up with some pretty funny (or scary) translations. The same can be said for so called translators who are nothing more than bilingual. This writer once saw an English language sign that stated something to the effect of “No Vandalism – Violators will be prosecuted.” The Spanish translation stated something like “Victims of rape will be prosecuted.” Not a good translation to say the least.

6) Translators Can Interpret And Interpreters Can Translate

While it may seem like the two would be interchangeable, there is a distinct difference between translating and interpreting. Writing and speaking are two very different things, and one skill set is very different from the other. Just because someone is skilled at one does not mean that he or she is skilled at the other.

Translation deals specifically with translating into a text format, whether the source material is another document or speech (audio translation). Translators need to be good writers and depending on the individual’s area of expertise, a background in technical, creative, academic, or other forms of writing is necessary. A translator also needs reading and comprehension skills, along with knowledge of linguistics and a high proficiency for editing and grammar. For those who are involved in audio translation, listening skills are also important.

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