Alexika's Top 10 Translation Myths

Whilst translation is one of the oldest professions in the world, it remains one of the least understood. In social situations, it is regularly necessary to explain what we do and how we add value our clients’ business lives.

This has led many commentators over the years to publish their lists of ‘translation myths’ – and we thought we should publish our own top 10 translation myths! Here they are:

1. Being bilingual means that you can translate.

No, professional translation means taking the language to a different level, to the point where the final text reads like it is written in the target language.

Bilingual people cannot do this without learning techniques and plenty of graduate linguists fail exams in translation. This is why we say that translation is generally a post-graduate profession.

2. The words ‘translator’ and ‘interpreter’ are interchangeable.

The BBC is the most common culprit for this one! A translator works with the written word whilst the interpreter works with speech. There are some very clever professionals out there who can do both to a high level but, generally speaking, the skills are different and people will choose one or the other as a career path.

3. Translation is a niche market, something of a cottage industry.

We refer to the numbers on this one – according to respected industry consultants Common Sense Advisory, the market for outsourced language services in 2014 is worth US$42.2 billion. In Europe, the market is estimated as being worth US$20.8 billion.

4. Machine translation is taking over from human translation.

Think of it as a scale – at the one end there are the (very useful) free translation services such as Google translate, perfect for getting an instant gist of a text. At the other end of this scale, you need to entrust a text to a professional human translator to have an accurate and reliable target translation. Demand for both types of translation is growing.

5. Translators can work in both directions.

Very rarely is this the case, maybe if someone has grown up in a perfectly bilingual environment – but even then most people have a bias. Almost without exception, professional translators will work into their mother tongue only as this is the language in which they can write fluently and capture the nuances of the subject.

6. Translators speak many languages.

This is another of the common questions in social situations – how many languages do you speak then? The answer for most professional translators is that they translate from one or maybe two languages into their mother tongue. The important skills are to do with having deep knowledge of a few languages and cultures rather than superficial knowledge of many.

7. Translation is instant.

We are sometimes asked to translate texts in less time than it would have taken to create them in the first place! It takes time to research a text. It takes time to refine a translation and polish the words to the required level. A translation company will ensure that the translation is proofread by a second linguist. Working on the basis of 1500 words per day is a realistic level of output.

8. A translator must live in the country of his/her target language.

Actually it is not always the case now that a German translator must live in Germany for example. There are constant opportunities, on the internet and elsewhere, to maintain a mother-tongue language. But professional translators are constantly updating their language skills and specialist subject knowledge, wherever they are.

9. If you are a translator, you can translate anything.

That sounds lovely, doesn’t it! In fact, all professional translators specialise in particular subject areas. A translator might opt to become an English to Italian legal translator for example. That translator will then ensure that their knowledge of English and Italian legal terminology is constantly updated. But they won’t be able to translate in the field of chemical engineering!

10. Translation is a low-technology profession.

Well, we are not using machine translation but there is a myriad of tools out there for professional translators. The use of CAT (computer aided translation) tools such as translation memory can be essential for providing the best service that clients deserve. Translation companies use the latest project management systems to ensure that multiple deadlines are met. Those working in the translation profession need to be extremely IT literate in addition to having high level language skills.

So fellow translators – does this list tally with the questions that you are asked by clients and in social situations? Would you substitute some of our top 10 with your own? We’d love to hear from you.

P.S. The peculiarly British (and American?) trait of assuming that everyone speaks your language if you shout loudly enough is another subject! Please see our separate Blog post: NO! They don’t all speak English….