What Do People Think Of You? 5 (Wrong) Ideas about Translators

December 8, 2014
What Do People Think Of You? 5 (Wrong) Ideas about Translators

If you’re involved in the translation business, then you should be aware that there are a number of incorrect assumptions that people make about the role of a translator. Indeed, some of these false assumptions have the potential to put a lot of pressure on a translator and undermine the professionalism of the role. 

It’s a good idea to be aware of what the task of a translator entails and what it doesn’t. Whether you’re a translator or are considering hiring one to work for you, then this post is for you! Hopefully, these five common misconceptions will give you a clearer insight into how translators work and what to expect from them.

#1 If someone can speak another language, then they can translate it

People often assume that the ability to hold a conversation in another language goes hand-in-hand with the ability to translate too. This is wrong: translation requires more than the mere ability to speak another language, as written text often differs from conversational language. Moreover, a good translation needs to take cultural phrases into account too, accurately localizing idioms and metaphors for the target audience.

 #2 Translators simply swap one word for another

This assumption is based on the incorrect belief that words only have one meaning. In reality, different words have different semantic ranges, and whilst some have a broader scope of potential meaning than others, words generally carry a wealth of different meanings depending on their usage in the text’s immediate and wider contexts.  The translator’s job is to choose a word in the target language that best conveys the meaning of the original word. And frequently, the most literal translation isn’t always the most appropriate to convey the author’s intention.

#3 Translators can translate in both ways

If someone can translate from one language into another, then they must be able to translate back again, right? Actually, translators generally only translate one-way: from their second language into their original language. This is because, regardless of grammatical ability in a second language, translating linguistic subtleties and nuances only comes with the immersion into a society that being a native of that culture entails. Whilst asking a translator to translate text into their second language might produce a readable document, it will be significantly below the level of quality required for the text to flow naturally.

#4 The translator will improve the original message

This point might seem obvious, but it’s not uncommon for clients to expect the translator to not only provide a flawless translation, but also to make the translation sound better than the original text. Whilst many translators are very good at their work (especially those who work with Tomedes!), translators can only work within the confines of the original text. If you’re seeking a translator to improve your document’s message, then it might be best work with an editor over an extended period of time before commissioning a translator to translate the document.

 #5 Most people can read English anyway, so translators aren’t needed

This assumption is more commonly found in clients who are attempting to sell a product or service globally. They reason that, as lots of people can read English, they needn’t employ a translator to go over their marketing copy or contractual documents. Whilst people all over the world can indeed read English, digesting material in another language is always more challenging than in your native language. Giving customers access to your text in their own language makes them much more comfortable and shows that you care about their custom, which will likely make them more interested in what you’re selling. 

Perhaps you’ve had a client who’s made some of these assumptions about your translation service? How did these assumptions make you feel, and how did you deal with them tactfully? Feel free to share your experiences below!

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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