5 Things All Translators Know

5 Things All Translators Know

Though we speak many languages and live in countless countries across the globe, there are certain things that people in our industry can agree on. Here is our list of 5 things all translators know.

Knowing a language doesn't mean you can translate it

Just because you know a language, that doesn’t mean you can translate it

This is one of the first things that translators learn. Knowing how to speak a language doesn’t make someone a translator (just like having hands doesn’t make them a pianist).

Countless people across the world are conversant in more than one language. However, being conversant and being able to translate are two different things. Competent translators are skilled professionals with years of experience, formal education, and an innate flair for the written word. Translators are fluent in both source and text languages and can write professionally in their native tongue.

Anyone wanting to translate must be able to understand the source language in all contexts, from comic books to financial statements and beyond. Translators must be able to read, understand, and synthesize complex information in two languages. They need to possess a wide breadth of knowledge across industries (and if possible, one or two specializations), and be able to write flawlessly.

Think of your translator as a skilled writer able to speak two languages fluently.

The best translators work into their native language

Translators should work into their native language(s)

The cardinal rule of our industry: only translate in your native language.

This is known as the “mother tongue principle.” Only a native speaker of English translates into English, a native speaker of German into German, a native speaker of Spanish into Spanish, and so on. In other words, a translator’s native language (mother tongue) is the language into which she or her translates, i.e. the target language.

Even though a translator may nobly strive to attain native speaker mastery of a foreign language, even the most talented among us find themselves constrained when translating into their second language. For the average translator, it causes the standard of work to fall below an acceptable level. Furthermore, translating into a second language is far more time-consuming than translating into your native language. It’s not a financially viable practice either for the translator or the client.

And our industry’s professional organizations agree. For example, the ITI’s Code of Conduct states:


4.1 Translation

4.1.1 Subject to 4.4 and 4.5 below, members shall translate only into a language which is either (i) their mother tongue or language of habitual use, or (ii) one in which they have satisfied the Institute that they have equal competence. They shall translate only from those languages in which they can demonstrate they have the requisite skills.

What's the difference between translation and interpreting

Translators and interpreters do different work

Interpreters work with the spoken word. Translators work with the written word. While a translator may be a skilled interpreter and vice versa, the two are different practices. Interpreting is also a skilled profession requiring formal education and practical experience.

Translation is a skilled service

Good translation is a skilled service, not a commodity

Flour, sugar, and eggs are commodities; translation is not. All the same, some translation agencies treat it as such and hope this mistaken belief is accepted by their clients as well. More often than not, these mass-production translation brokers supply subpar work at very low rates. Clearly, translation is not a commodity for a number of reasons. In his blog, master Japanese to English translator Bill Lise explains:

Difficulty of Judging Quality

In the usual sense, commodities are subjected to widely accepted quality standards. Judging the quality of a translation is not as simple. It is nearly impossible for a non-translator to evaluate the quality of a translation. This is a fortunate fact for mass-production translation brokers who add no value to the translations they re-sell, preferring to simply pass them from translator to client.

Skilled Service

Much like the work of a copywriter or marketing executive, the work of a translator is a skilled service. Translation is not a word for word practice, and the best translators are skilled writers in their native languages—a total rewrite of the source concept in a target language may also be arranged.

Tiny Population of Providers Relative to Demand

It is reasonable to estimate that for many language combinations, the population of professional translators capable of producing quality work is a small one. After 30 years of experience, Bill Lise of Kirameki Translation estimates there are no more than 1,000 competent Japanese to English translators in the entire world.

When we allow for time that many of these translators spend pursuing other activities (including translation work for other clients), the available population shrinks considerably, perhaps to no more than 200 or so translators in the world at any given time. Moreover, more than one translation company may be attempting to subcontract to the same translator at the same time. There just aren’t enough qualified translators to go around.

No Two Translations Are Alike

When you need more flour, eggs, or sugar, you increase production. For example, an egg producer can simply buy more chickens. A producer of flour can, given sufficient funding, purchase more land. However, it is exceedingly difficult to maintain quality and uniformity while increasing the production level of translations.

The inevitable and necessary choice is to split the work among two or more translators. Naturally, the more translators working on a project, the greater the need for quality control. Because translations are not a commodity, the products of two translators are rarely interchangeable.

Capable Translators? Not Developed Overnight

Capable translators are not developed overnight. Nor are they easy to find. They want to work with professional agencies offering fair rates that pay on time. Unfortunately, the response of some translation brokers to this reality is to seek less capable translators.

There is an endless supply of less-capable translators tapped daily. With the proliferation of the internet, anyone who is conversant in a foreign language can do enough Googling to piece together a semi-coherent sentence. What’s more, these translators are willing to accept extremely low rates, bifurcating the translation market further. In these instances, the danger of producing a subpar translation is very real.

Some of these less-capable translators speak neither source nor target language as their mother tongue, and most of them have never spent time in either source or target countries. What’s worse, a large cohort may even use machine translation tools. This is a recipe for disaster when a client seeks a quality translation.

Specialized translators are the best translators

Specialization, Specialization, Specialization

Many translators specialize in a single area. The best of them also have formal education in their specialization. For example, highly capable legal translators have degrees in law, while medical translators may have a degree in medicine, biology, or nursing.

While translation education is always a plus, we find that the best specialized translators are both fluent in their source and target languages, and have formal education in their specialization rather than in translation as a general subject. This differs from interpreting; many interpreters have formal education in interpreting and then specialize later on the job after learning how to interpret first.

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