11 myths about translation and translators
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11 myths about translation and translators

There’s a lot of myths about translation and translators. Sometimes they seem to contradict each other. In this post I’m going to debunk some of these myths.


1 Anyone who speaks two languages can be a translator


Translation is a skill. That means that you’ve got to spend some time on deliberate practice before you become good at it. It’s also important to have good writing skills in the target language, know the terminology, be able to do research and use CAT-tools. Are you sure that your friend who studied French at the University 10 years ago is a good choice for translating your website?


2 Good translators can translate anything


I don’t know about other countries, but this is something that translation students are actually being taught at Russian universities. Nevertheless, that’s absolutely not true.


It’s easy to see if you look at it this way: would you order some technical writing, a legal contract and a marketing copy in your native language from one and the same person? Probably not, because these types of writing require different skills and background.


To be able to provide high quality translation one should not only know a foreign language, but also feel at ease with the subject matter.


3 Good translators can translate in both directions


Professional translators usually translate into their native language only. My guess is that it’s often because they are (a) perfectionists and (b) know the foreign language on such a high level that they can see their own limitations. There are some exceptions to this rule, but let’s be honest, they are pretty rare.


4 A text that has cost you thousands of dollars and has been crafted by a team of specialists over several weeks can be translated by anyone in a couple of days for the fraction of the cost


More often than not this is what customers think about their marketing copy and I could never understand why. A translator has to take the time to get to know the brand and its style. He has to come up with some engaging content that will speak to the new audience. Sometimes he has to make some changes and work around some metaphors or puns that just don’t work in the target language. This all takes time and requires skills. I’m sounding a little like a broken record here, I know. But this is such an easy concept that so few people outside the translation industry seem to understand!


5 The length of the source text and the translation should be the same


Different languages have different structures. In some languages it takes less words to express the same thought. Also Russian words are normally longer than English. But wait till you see some of German words, like Lebensmittelgeschäft (grocery), for example. You should bear it in mind when you develop the layout for your site, framework for you app or work on DTP.


6 Translation can not provide high quality copy


This one seems to be somewhat contrary to what I said above, but it really isn’t. The key is to find a good translator specializing in the subject matter of your text. I don’t agree with Wayne Bourland, who wrote that translation can not produce a good marketing copy. Translated (or rather transcreated) marketing materials can preserve the brand’s voice while taking into account the differences of the local audience. However, such translation can not be cheap.


7 You can get high quality translation without interacting with the translator


Good translators ask questions. They don’t do it straight away and they won’t bother you with queries if they can find an answer themselves, but it’s always best to be in touch with your translator or project manager, if you work with an agency. Sometimes translators can find errors in the source file. After all there are few people who will read your copy as closely as the person doing the translation.


8 A good translator will instantly get the hang of your company’s preferred terminology and style


It’s surprising, but being a psychic is not part of a translator’s job description. I can make an assumption of what your preferences might be, but there’s no guarantee that my guess would be correct. This is especially true when it comes to terminology. Oh, and one more important tip: it’s always best to provide the glossary and the style guide before the translation process starts.


9 Your in-house specialists always know better what changes should be made to the translation


On the one hand, your staff might know some details that the translator is not aware of. On the other hand when it comes to style, translators are often more qualified than your team. I’ve seen it times and times again when an in-house reviewer made purely preferential changes or even made the text worse from the stylistic point of view. This is another reason why it’s so important to have an opportunity to discuss the translation directly with the person who has done it.


10 Higher price always means higher quality


Unfortunately, higher price does not always guarantee the best quality. In my previous post I wrote about an unpleasant situation when a customer preferred a poorer version of the translation, while it was also the more expensive one.


Buying translation is not easy, because usually you can’t evaluate the quality and have to trust the service provider. I gave some tips on finding a translator at the end of this post. Hopefully, you will find them useful.


Another option is to hire an independent reviewer, who could help you choose the translator for your project.


11 You can’t use the services of freelance translators, if you want a one-stop shop for your multi-lingual translation and some DTP


Many freelance translators offer not only translation, but other services as well. They can do everything themselves, or partner up with other freelancers. I provide editing by a second linguist, keyword research and localization and on-device language testing for Android and iOS mobile apps. I know colleagues, who offer DTP and project management as well. By the way, if that’s you, why don’t you show up in the comments?


If you have a multilingual project working with a big agency seems to be the easiest option, but if you spend some time on research, you might find a team of freelancers who will provide a higher quality and a more personalized approach.


Are there any other myths about translation that you have come across? I’d love to read about them in the comments! And please don’t forget to share this post, if you have found it useful.


Image courtesy of Kaboompics.com



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  • Maria

    24.09.2015 at 23:31 Reply

    I provide Project Management as well as technical/business/literary translation and community interpreting.

    • Elena

      24.09.2015 at 23:57 Reply

      Hi Maria, thanks for coming by! Could you tell a bit more about the project management part? Have you been providing this service from the very beginning of your translation career? Do you charge for it on a per hour basis?

  • LanguageKitchen

    25.09.2015 at 09:33 Reply

    My working languages are English/Spanish to German. But I cooperate with colleagues because it’s easier for me to see who’s an actual qualified translator than it is for potential clients. So I can offer my clients a one-stop-shop translation for many languages. I think this is a bonus for freelancers.

    • Elena

      25.09.2015 at 11:41 Reply

      How do you decide if a translator has the necessary qualifications, if he or she translates into some language you don’t speak? I’ve always been curious about it. Do you base your judgement on recommendations, membership in professional associations or something else?

  • Anete

    25.09.2015 at 11:31 Reply

    Thanks for a great read, Elena!
    I am a freelancer translator myself and it is good to be reminded that other fellow translators have come across the same misconceptions about translation and translators.

    • Elena

      25.09.2015 at 11:39 Reply

      Hi Anete, you’re most welcome! I’m glad that you have found it useful.

  • Timote Suladze

    25.09.2015 at 21:14 Reply

    A very good idea about how our work should or could be organized. Nevertheless in my opinion, it’s just one more example of perfectionism, meanwhile in real live we have to act in slightly (and this is a very big slightly!) different ways.
    With regard to project managment, in some cases I offer such service as well, however without charging extra fees. For example, if someone needs a translation from Russian into Italian reviewed by a native speaker, I do such translation and give a contacts of one of my Italian colleague. It takes no longer than one minute. Another example: if a client (mostly an agency) wants two interpreters in a booth, I can select one from my trusted colleagues. Usually I post this information on my facebook profile and give to the client a contacts of the first colleague who accepted the offer. Ciao!

    • Elena

      25.09.2015 at 21:31 Reply

      Hi Timote, thanks for your opinion! Could you elaborate a little bit more on what you consider to be perfectionism? I’m really curious!

  • Timote Suladze

    25.09.2015 at 23:31 Reply

    In a few words I think that many of us are forced to translate anything and in both directions. At least those of us who live and work in Russia and in local market. Especially if we’re talking about languages A and B. Hence I think I’d better to translate al least form B into A, from A into B, and from C into A (in some rare cases also from A into C), othervise I might not to be able to make ends meet. As simple as that, but this it just my humble experience.

    • Elena

      26.09.2015 at 13:17 Reply

      I live in Russia, but I stopped working with local agencies/direct clients in 2008. The two main reasons were low rates and the absence of translations in my areas of specialization.

      At the moment I’m in a similar situation: I think I’m being underpaid and the work I’m being offered feels less interesting and satisfying. That’s why I’m looking for new ways to improve the situation. For me this is always a matter of choice.

  • Luis Felipe Medina Álvarez

    26.09.2015 at 22:35 Reply

    Great text, thank you for sharing.

    • Elena

      27.09.2015 at 00:47 Reply

      You’re most welcome. Thank you for the kind words.

  • Daniella S

    27.09.2015 at 03:39 Reply

    HI, I like you’re post. I think clients should realize translators are humans, too with limitations not superpowers 😀 I think in any line of work treat others like you want to be treated: with respect and fair pay. I work with English and Indonesian. I work with DTP like InDesign, Illustrator. If there’s DTP work I can help you with please let me know. Cheers.

    • Elena

      27.09.2015 at 16:37 Reply

      Hi Daniella, I’m glad you like it! I completely agree with the points you make (although, it’s a pity I don’t have any superpowers :)) And it’s good to have the contacts of someone who can help with DTP, in case I need it, so thanks for reaching out.

  • Timote Suladze

    27.09.2015 at 10:51 Reply

    I used to work only with foreign agencies—mainly Italian, sometimes Spanish and American—and with direct clients as well. However less than two years ago I faced the biggest challenge. The number of thanslation and interpreting assigments in my pair (ItRu) and areas (law, business etc.) plummeted dramatically, so I decided to “refresh” my English and to start learning Spanish too. I visited three EnRu simultaneous interpreting courses and two Es courses at Cervantes Institute. Then, I slightly reduced my rates. Now I have enough projects in all the pairs (new ones included). As a result my overall income seems to be returned to the pre-crisis level.

    • Elena

      27.09.2015 at 16:33 Reply

      No doubt, CPD is important. I love taking online courses on sites like Coursera. They are great for picking up new specializations. Thanks for sharing your experience, Timote!

  • Annisa

    28.09.2015 at 06:48 Reply

    This article really helps me to open people’s mind that translation is not an easy job. Even I am wondering how can we make more impact to tell the world that translator can’t be done by everyone. I remember before I became a translator, someone came to me and asked me to translate her task and shown me the translation version that she got from a photocopy man who used transtool. And she thought it would be easier for me, while she didn’t know that I have to repeat everything again

    • Elena

      28.09.2015 at 15:11 Reply

      Yes, that’s another widely spread myth, that a machine translation is always helpful and reduces the time a translator requires to do their job. Although in reality, it’s rarely the case. Thanks for bringing that up, Annisa.

  • Anna Rosich Soler

    28.09.2015 at 14:18 Reply

    What an interesting post about translators! I think more than one agency should have a lot at it.

    Elena, since two years ago I have a blog about translation and languages, written in Catalan (www.traduint.wordpress.com). Since tomorrow is the International Translation Day, I’d like to know if you give me the permission to translate this article into Catalan. Of course, I’d say it’s a translation and where it comes from. I think it’s a very interesting post and I’d like my Catalan readers to read it.

    Let me know what you think about it.

    Thank you very much, and keep on translating! 🙂


    • Elena

      28.09.2015 at 15:08 Reply

      Thanks for the kind words, Anna.

      As for translating my post, I think it would be wonderful, thank you! 🙂

      • Anna Rosich Soler

        28.09.2015 at 16:45 Reply

        Thank you very much, Elena 🙂 I’ll send you the link of the translation, when I post it.

        Have a nice day!

  • Rod Morgan

    01.10.2015 at 21:00 Reply

    Thanks very much. Everything makes so much sense, and is so clearly explained, that I feel foolish for not having understood them previously. This is a very helpful essay, and I’m grateful to have had it passed my way.

    • Elena

      01.10.2015 at 21:02 Reply

      You’re most welcome, Rod.

  • Douglas Carnall

    09.10.2015 at 14:36 Reply

    Great post, with which I entirely agree.
    A couple of points I might add:
    1) It is my impression that in the French education system is rather apt to teach languages by translation (“thème” = into a foreign language & “vérsion” = into French); translators are at the pinnacle of this system, and so naturally therefore must be good at both. Reputable translation professionals in France do mostly translate into their native language, but there are still rather a lot of “translations” around here that—hem!—have not enjoyed this advantage. I blame the system.
    2) Translation is a profession because only assiduous dedication for many years achieves good results. There are many skills to master, but the talent most required is skill in the target language: a good translator must be capable of many and varied parodies, going far beyond any notion of good personal style. Any difficulty in a source text will generally succumb to conscientious research, but producing something at once faithful and readable really does require mastery of the target language.

    • Elena

      09.10.2015 at 15:07 Reply

      Thanks for your input, Douglas!

      It looks like French and Russian education systems have this flaw in common. As for your second point, I couldn’t agree more. To be a good translator, you’ve got to be a good writer in the first place.

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