by Martha Oschwald
One of the biggest gripes among translators is being taken for walking encyclopedias. As ridiculous as it sounds, it’s one of the top misconceptions about the job. Unfortunately, there are many more where that came from. Here are some of the most common myths and facts of a niche industry steeped in misinformation.
In the list below, each number represents an adjective ascribed to the translation industry. Some may be conflicting, although your typical translator has heard all of them.
One of the most glaring misconceptions about this job is that translators know every word in both of their languages. (Many translators work in multiple language pairs, which means they speak three or more languages. In that case, the assumption applies across the board.) How many times have you mistakenly mispronounced or misunderstood a word in your native language only to discover it years later? The same is true of language service providers, including translators. They’re just regular people who chose to learn another language, and are prone to the same mistakes as anyone else.
A subset of this assumption is that translators speak both or all of their languages equally. In other words, if you’re a Spanish>English translator, it must mean you’re fluent in both. Fluency is a matter of debate and a term which is thrown around loosely. Definition aside, most translators are very honest in admitting they’re better at one language than another. In fact, that’s the reason why most agencies prefer to hire native speakers for faster, more accurate work. That’s why perfectly knowledgeable translators are a figment of your imagination.
In the translation industry, the group of languages people translate is called a language pair. For example, German<>English is a language pair, as is Estonian>Russian or Spanish<French. The arrows indicate the direction of translation. If a language pair uses both arrows like this <>, the translator can work from and into both languages. It follows that a single arrow refers to translation in one direction only. In other words, the Estonian>Russian translator speaks and understands both languages, but always starts with Estonian and ends with Russian.
What people commonly assume is that translators always work bidirectionally. In the example above, the German<>English translator works from German to English AND English to German. While such people exist, they’re the exception to the rule. What happens most often is that translators work into their native language only. Even in the case of multiple language pairs such as Portuguese>English and Italian>English, the common thread is landing in your native language. With that in mind, the myth of bidirectional translation is unfortunately more fiction than fact.
If you’ve ever come across a list of work-from-home jobs, chances are you’ve seen translation before. It’s usually listed among unskilled or entry-level jobs like customer service agents, transcriptionists or data entry clerks. Unfortunately, that’s incorrect. While it’s true that some professionals may have joined the industry with nothing more than a high school diploma, most agencies require higher education in today’s market, aside from the skills required. A bachelor’s degree is fairly standard, but it’s not uncommon to find translators with even higher level qualifications.
What’s also misleading about this label is its implied ease. Learning a language often takes years of dedicated study, as opposed to quick on-the-job training. Unlike other skills which you might have picked up in other areas of your life, you can’t fake knowing another language. Entry-level positions in translation are just too good to be true.
One of the most positive comments that surfaces about translation is how romantic it must be. Somehow, it conjures up images of international romance or the expressive side of language. While most translators think of language as more than transactional, romantic is a bit of a stretch. Documents like medical paperwork, standard operating procedures or marketing campaigns are hardly reminiscent of candle-lit dinners or walks on the beach. Sadly, this myth is exactly that.
Many of the concepts on this list likely stem from translation’s confusion with interpretation. The basic difference is that interpreters speak languages and translators write them, so interpreters work in real time whereas translators do not. In other words, interpreters work quickly while translators take their time. (It’s worth mentioning that interpreters often do research ahead of specific assignments, so their job isn’t quite as spontaneous as it looks.) Documents require much more time and effort to translate than you might expect, so the process is anything but fast.
The other thing people don’t realize is that at bare minimum, translations are handled by two language service providers. That’s to say that one person translates while the other proofreads. A document makes its way through a team of people before it’s returned to the client, with translation often taking the longest. The concept of quick translations is unfortunately wrong.
Jobs are a matter of taste, so it’s no surprise that some people aren’t drawn to translation. What people may not realize is that translation requires further expertise in a dozen other areas. Different translators who work in the same language pair may have entirely different expertise because they specialize in subfields like patents, retail or literature. It really runs the gamut. It’s hard to believe this diverse industry could be such a snooze-fest, which turns this myth on its head.
7. Easy Money
Something that comes up occasionally among translators is the assumption that the job pays well. And it does. But only if you are very good. No two translators do exactly the same work, and their pay depends on everything from experience to areas of specialization. Additionally, for many translators the field isn’t always a consistent source of income, since work ebbs and flows. If you are dedicated to your chosen profession, a talented linguist/writer and are willing to work hard-you can earn a good living. But it’s not easy money.
Like other language students, translators are often pretty social people. Learning a language often involves a lot of time spent listening and speaking with others, plus potentially living abroad. It’s basically an enormous commitment to social interaction before the work even gets started. However, what people outside the industry may not realize is that translators usually work in isolation every day.
Here’s another thing to consider. One of the things that sets interpretation apart from translation is its working environment. Interpreters may work in large or small groups, or even be present at enormous international conferences. Ultimately, they interact with many different types of people and need to be comfortable with public speaking. In that sense, translation is its exact opposite: your work is generally handled via email or on company websites. The end result is that both jobs are language-centric, but translation is anything but social outside of language learning.
People unfamiliar with translation often think that translations are all the same. That means one sentence translated by two people will end up exactly the same. Although translators do have watch out for accuracy, translations themselves aren’t identical. Translation involves both knowledge and writing, so it’s entirely possible for translators to have their own style, word choice or even punctuation preferences. You might not notice these variations much as clients, because agencies use style guides to streamline the final product. At the end of the day, translations are rarely uniform.
Replacement is less of a myth and more of an ongoing debate, but it bears consideration. Many translations today involve the use of post-editing, which means computer-generated translation reworked by human translators. In some ways, technology has already replaced people and hastened the process. What remains to be seen is whether technology gives people the boot as this story becomes stranger than fiction.
There are tons of misconceptions surrounding translation, and plenty of reasons to believe them. However, things aren’t always as they seem and this field is no exception. Have you heard any other tale tales in the translation industry? Feel free to share.
About the Author
Martha Oschwald is a content writer specializing in design and real estate. With a background in translation and architecture, she combines quality prose with creative content at https://deliciouswords.weebly.com/.
Excellent, perceptive article. After more than 25 years as a freelance financial and business translator, I can say from experience that the profession is accurately portrayed here. The repudiation of the myths is right on.