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Behind the scenes: Translation FAQs

After recent networking events and a secondary school careers fair, I have come to the realisation that not everybody eats, sleeps and dreams about the intricacies of translation (shocked and appalled). The world is made up of experts; in scuba diving, croquet, veterinary science – you name it. And yet, we can’t be experts in everything. For instance, we’re experts in transcreation, but we know nothing about glass blowing. That’s why we’ve put together this quick ‘translation 101’ guide to help bring everyone that tiny step closer to translation expertise. We’re generous like that.

One good thing about being an expert is that you know all about misconceptions and can prepare and refine the perfect elevator pitch. So, without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, your top five translation FAQs:

1. ‘What’s the difference between a translator and someone who was born bilingual?’

This is one of our personal favourites and one of our most poetic answers is never far behind: ‘Being bilingual doesn’t qualify you as a translator in the same way having two hands doesn’t make you a concert pianist’. Simply understanding a language does not mean you can translate it into another. Being a translator means being a writer, an editor and your own worst critic. It’s the art of taking the meaning behind the building blocks of a sentence and crafting something beautiful. It is also a science that requires mastery, just like any other field of expertise.

When a French person goes to a café...

2. ‘Surely you just look words up in the dictionary?’

We wish it were that simple. While translation can often mean replacing one word with another, it is often all about the elusive context. Ask a translator ‘How do you say [XXX] in French?’ and their first response will be (more often than not) ‘What’s the context?’

The intricacies of a commonly used word

There are many different ways to translate individual words. How about ‘Hammer’? Is it a noun (tool)? Is it a verb (to hammer something home)? Is it American actor ‘Armie Hammer’? We just cannot tell without context. Thanks to the complexity of language, there are many different ways to translate any given sentence. And no two translators will give you the exact same result.

Nuts about languages

3. True or false: ‘Translation is a two-way street’?

The best translators are the ones you don’t see, because a work reads as if it were written in the target language in the first place. That’s why you should always translate into your mother tongue. Can you guarantee a text reads well in a language that isn’t your own? We’d go with no. Native speakers are the only people capable of making that decision. If you can’t guarantee perfection, why risk it?

4. ‘Do you do spoken translation?’

‘Spoken translation’ has its own term: interpreting. Translation is written. They are two very different jobs requiring very different skills. There’s no time for fine-tuning in interpreting; it’s about quick, effective, communication. Translation is much more of a process with various players (translator, reviser, proofreader) making sure the end product is flawless.

5. ‘Why bother when we have Google Translate?’

Last but not least, we touched on machine translation in a previous post. So, I’ll let Kerstin do the talking. But, to sum up, the answer is simple: machines can certainly speed up the process (if used properly), but if you value poetic licence, quality and creativity, keep it real.

A Google Translate Fail


By Amy Reid, WIT Account Manager


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