Invisibility and false beliefs of translation

Published on 31/07/2020

Translation is part of that group of invisible, but indispensable, professions. Every day we come across the work of translators and translation companies without being aware of it: when we use one of the Microsoft programs, such as Word or Excel, when we log into our Facebook or Netflix account, when we read a book by a foreign author or see the latest Hollywood release, if you dare to read the instruction manual for your iPhone or Samsung, etc.

Few people think that behind all those words there is a whole network of translators and translation agencies working hard from their homes and offices to provide professional translations and break down the language barrier. The great paradox is that one of the maxims of specialized translation is to create a translated text that is faithful to the original in terms of meaning and that sounds idiomatic in the target language, i.e. that it is not noticed that it is a translation. How will the world of translation be visible if good translators strive to make a translation look like a translation?

Not surprisingly, this lack of visibility and recognition generates all kinds of false beliefs related to the world of translation that only feeds back into the lack of knowledge about it. Let's see some:

1. Translation is expensive

Translation is expensive

And I wonder, how could it not be? It's not just a practice, it's a process. Both freelance translators and translation companies offer a complete service that should be remunerated as such. It is not simply a matter of translation, which is already laborious and complicated depending on the subject, but a process that involves a whole series of small stages: documentation, terminology, contextualization, revision and sometimes even layout.

Likewise, many consider translation to be expensive because it is seen as an unnecessary, easy and banal process, but those who, knowing languages, have set about translating have found that it is neither easy nor time consuming. It is not valued, so it is considered an expensive and exclusive service, relegatedto the background. However, just as a company does not hesitate to hire, for example, a marketing professional to relaunch its image and sell itself, why do some companies hesitate to use translation specialists, be they freelance translators or translation companies, when translating a website, for example? Why do you think that work could be done simply by a bilingual person or an automatic translator like Google Translator?

And this last question I pose leads me directly to the second belief. 

2. Why use a professional translator when Google Translator does it for free?

Google Translator

In view of this, the first thing I have to say is that I would be suspicious from the outset of a program that offers such a useful and practical service free of charge. Google TranslatorLike other machine translation resources, it works today through automatisms. In particular, Google offers its translation from examples of texts taken from the Internet that have already been translated. This has two major disadvantages:

  • The information that exists on the web is not always reliable, and it is not, either in what it says or how it says it.
  • The combinations of texts are infinite. Of course, there can be the same, similar, or even the same text, but the translation is influenced by much more than simply the words themselves: what is the purpose of the text, the target audience, the intention of the source text, etc. Automatic translation resources overlook many of these aspects, especially when we are talking about a generic automatic translator such as Google Translator.

Still, I don't want it to seem that translation professionals are totally against machine translation because it is not. I simplywant to point out the limitations they have and we want to promote the responsible use of these tools. Machine translation resources can help us on a personal level to understand a text, for example, but they should never be used for professional translation, as the quality can be dire. If you are interested in knowing more about the origin, evolution and professional use of translation, I recommend our blog: "Present, past and future of translation"

3. Anyone can translate

Anyone can translate

In 1897, American Airlines launched an advertising campaign focused on the slogan "fly in leather", trying to promote their new first-class leather armchairs. In English the campaign was successful. However, they translated the phrase literally into Spanish, overlooking the double meaning evoked by the phrase "flying in the buff". Indeed, it was quite a blunder.

Another great example, we find it in a Spanish brand: Mango. In 2014, the Spanish fashion company began to market "slaves" in France. In Spanish a slave also refers to a type of necklace or bracelet, but in French it has no other connotation than that of a person deprived of liberty and used for economic exploitation. They had to apologize and quickly remove the "slave style" designation from all their platforms. As you can imagine, this affected the image of the brand in France.

You can see more famous translation errors in our blog "Serious translation errors in multinational companies", but these two examples are enough to show how important it is to leave our translation in the hands of professionals, since there are many skills and knowledge that they have learned, which go unnoticed by the rest of the world. A professional translator will have very advanced language skills, but also cultural skills of the target country, which will avoid mistakes like the ones we have just seen. In addition, you will be able to deal correctly with other language challenges such as false friends, foreign words, sayings or idiomatic expressions.

Similarly, professional translators must have stylistic and typographical knowledge of the language into which they translate. A translator from French to English will know, for example, that French is a more bombastic language, while English is more synthetic and will be able to take this into account when translating. Or, for example, a professional translator faced with a legal document will know that in American English the date reads month/day/year, instead of day/month/year, as it does in Spanish, French or German.

4. No resources or tools required for translation

No resources or tools required for translation

Another widely held belief is that the text itself is sufficient for translation. However, as a specialised translation agency, we know that there are a number of computer-assisted translation tools that are not only essential for a good translation, but also make the translator's work easier.

There are many software programs on the market, such as SDL Trados or MemoQ, which offer the possibility of aligning documents, spell-checking text or creating terminology databases, translation memories or glossaries. Having these programs and knowing how to use them is, nowadays, essential for the profession, since it will be possible to guarantee that the translation is coherent and of quality.

These programs are mostly expensive, but they are resources that a good professional translator or translation company should have. Therefore, a person who wants to translate a text will not only need a computer on which to do his work, but will also have to invest in licensing these programs in order to be able to offer professional translations.

5. The source text does not matter

The source text does not matter

It matters a lot. Firstly, it will be very much influenced by the fact that it is well written. Often in translation we find that the source text is not well written, either because of style or because it contains grammatical or spelling errors. The translator must be able to identify these errors and correct them.

A translator who is not a professional or has no training in translation will not know how to react to this. The most common attitude is to think: "the source text is like that, so I have to reproduce those errors", but this is a rookie mistake, because as professional translators we cannot offer a text that is badly written and we must, as far as possible, improve the source text. In this case, the correct course of action would be to contact the customer if possible, inform him of such errors and correct them. Nowadays, this situation very often occurs when we are faced with a translation from chininglish or chinenglish.

Secondly, not all texts are translated in the same way. There are different translation strategies, such as explanatory translation, translator's notes or omission, which the translator will have to take into account depending on the text and the speciality of the text.

For example, legal translation is generally more faithful to the source text, as information usually prevails. In these cases, a lot of recourse is made to explanatory translation in cases where there is no equivalent of the terms that work in the target language. In contrast, literary translation is more free. It is even acceptable to omit some references and compensate for such losses elsewhere in the book. Once again, the customer's opinion will play a role here, insofar as the customer accepts a translation that is further away from the source text.

As you can see, before starting to translate, it is important to analyze the source text and always take it into account throughout the process, not only its content, but also its nature, specialty, format and purpose.

As we dismantle all these false beliefs, we come to the conclusion that translation is indeed a complex world, since, in addition to the fact that all disciplines (law, medicine, finance, literature, etc.) make use of it, a series of resources and skills are needed to be able to deal with it correctly. So, share this article and let's start putting translation where it belongs!

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Virginia Pacheco's picture
Virginia Pacheco

Blog writer and Community Manager interested in multiculturality and linguistic diversity. From her native Venuzuela, she has travelled and lived for many years in France, Germany, Cameroon and Spain, passing on her passion for writing and her intercultural experiences.

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