A few years ago, Taco Bell translated their Japanese website with Google Translate. Instead of customers choosing a “beefy crunch burrito” or “breakfast soft taco,” their menu items were translated into phrases like “supreme court beef taco” and “low quality fleece.” It was so embarrassing that the website had to be taken down and replaced by a white screen with a few links to their social media accounts.
Lesson learned? Always hire a professional — human — translator for important projects.
Translating is a complex field, involving knowledge of cultural nuance far beyond vocabulary and grammar. This complexity is reflected in the kinds of questions and statements translators hear — comments born out of simple curiosity or lack of understanding about the profession.
We gathered a list of the eight most common questions and asked our translators for the answers. Take a look and find out how you can have happier, more productive translators.
- “You work from home as a translator. Is that a job?” Of course it is. As long as there is adequate workspace and a slew of dictionaries beside them, translators can do their job anywhere, even in their fuzzy slippers. Now if only they could add more hours to every day.
- “You mentioned dictionaries. Isn’t one enough?” While dictionaries are not the only items translators needs to do their job, having just one is not enough. Why? Not all dictionaries are the same. Some are simple and abridged. Some include how to use a word or phrase in a sentence. Older dictionaries may contain definitions that help in sentence construction. To ensure that they use the right words in the right context, translators often need to do research which often requires perusing a few dictionaries. One is never enough.
- “You only know three languages?” Knowing three languages is impressive. If a translator knows three languages deeply and is fluent in its rhythms, culture and vocabulary, they are better translators than any polyglot that knows many languages but not fluently.
- “Why should I pay you good money when I can just use a computer to translate?” Wouldn’t it be great to simply enter text into a computer and get a perfect translation? And machine translation is free! But remember the old adage “you get what you pay for?” In this case, it costs nothing and most of the time, you get nothing. Simply put, machines are just not ready yet and they may never be. They can do some pretty good word-for-word translation, but they will never completely replace a human translator. Machines are stumped when it comes to humor, idioms, similes, metaphors, slang, and clichés. The list goes on and on.
- “If I studied abroad for a few months, can I easily translate this text?” A few months studying abroad does not make you a translator. A professional translator studies intensely for many years to become proficient. Not only must they be fluent in another language, they must also become familiar with figurative language, or the poetry of language, if you will. Translators take into account the culture that is associated with the language(s) they are using – the traditions, beliefs, history, and current trends. Also, more complex documents require more in-depth knowledge. For example, translating an ancient text written in old German to modern German or even industry-specific documents, like pharmaceutical documents, require ever more expertise. Industry jargon also needs to be understood before attempting translation. For translators of all types, the challenge lies in trying to retain the feel, culture, and meaning of the original text. There is also a question of whether to preserve the more poetic pieces or change them into something more prosaic. All of these parts make up the whole that is translation.
- “Why is it taking you so long? I have a 400-page book that needs to be translated in three days.” First of all, translation takes time. A large document like a book will definitely need more than three days.
Secondly, while a document may look short, the length isn’t what matters. Expressing ideas from one language into another ─ and doing it well ─ needs time. And shorter doesn’t always mean simpler. Always remember translators have to balance words, culture, nuance and many other elements to make a perfect translation.
- “Will you overcharge me if I ask for this translation in the next few hours?” A translator’s job is really time-consuming to begin with. Long hours, lack of weekends are nothing new to them. So if you want a rush job from a translator with a full calendar, expect to pay a bit more. It is not overcharging. It is balancing life with unrealistic client expectations.
- “Wow. You made a lot of money translating that medical document. Can I become a translator too?” That is fine, as long as you are willing to put in the long hours to create a well written document all while making sure that the end result is accurate and as close to the original as humanly possible. Also, if you are writing in the medical field, be sure your translation doesn’t cause the end user any harm. A poorly worded translation can lead to people dying.
Hopefully these explanations help you understand translators and their profession a bit more and make any future collaboration with them go smoothly.
Ilona K is a 5-star writer at WriterAccess. Her latest creations include website user guides for the Federal Aviation Administration and blog articles for a language service provider.
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