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10 MYTHS ABOUT TRANSLATION

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Remember the MythBusters show? Today, I’m going to become a myth-buster myself, to bust a couple of common myths about translation and translators.

What is a myth?

Do I mean “a story from ancient times, especially one that was told to explain natural events or to describe the early history of a people”? Of course not. The myths I’m about to deconstruct here are, as the Oxford Dictionary defines them, “something that many people believe but that does not exist or is false”, or a synonym for “fallacy”.

Naturally, myths will form, no matter how many busters there are around to counter-strike them. People usually know very little about other people’s professions – not until they become involved in it themselves or simply listen carefully to a person who does the job. I also have no idea what people do in some corporate and business roles.

But I do know what translation is all about. Throughout the 10 years of my career, I’ve heard and read so many misconceptions about this job that I’ve decided to debunk a few myths – once and for all.

photo of English to Polish technical translator at Translatorion
Paweł debunking myths about translation

Here they are – 10 myths about translation and translators.

1. Translators simply copy words into a different language

I’ve mentioned this myth rather frequently – here on our blog as well as on our social media. Let’s make it clear again: translation is not about copying words into a different language. It’s quite hurtful when our job is reduced to this view.

To understand why translation is more than being a copy-cat, you need to understand how languages work. And you don’t need to look far. I guess any person who has ever studied a foreign language has experienced this: you’re trying to create a sentence by replacing the words in your first language with words in the second language, and the result is just laughable. Or, you’ve surely been ROTFL-ing at the sight of some very badly translated road signs and restaurant menus. Well then, here you are.

bad translations in public space

Translators don’t see texts as simple sequences of words. A text is a whole: what matters is how these words connect and how ambiguous they may be; how the paragraphs are structured and what the general tone of voice and register are. What’s more, a translator should know the culture of the target language: and in the case of languages spoken in more than one country, the connotations and nuances multiply.

If you’d like to know more about working on a text from a translator’s perspective, take a look at my article on using dictionaries in a smart way.

2. Translation is like a woman

Supposedly, translation is like a woman because if it’s beautiful, it’s not faithful, and if it’s faithful, it’s not beautiful. Gosh, how I hate this cliché sentence! It’s actually two stereotypes in one. A bogus BOGO sentence.

First and foremost: to say that a woman is either faithful or beautiful is harmful BS, so I won’t even delve into that.

But this adage is also false when it comes to translation. What rings true about it is that maintaining balance between being faithful to the source text and ‘beauty’ understood as naturally sounding language is art in itself. Many research papers and essays have been written on that subject. I’m sure that every translator has been in a situation where they simply needed to bend reality to make the text sound sensible and retain equivalence to the original at the same time.

And yet, this doesn’t imply that finding the golden mean, or the golden middle way, is impossible. What’s more, translators take on a different approach depending on the text type. I could conclude that translation of poetry is generally focused on the sound and “beauty” of the text, sometimes at the cost of 100% equivalence. Take Shakespeare in the Polish translation by Stanisław Barańczak! Then, at the other end of this spectrum, there are certified legal translators who cannot compromise on even a fraction of correspondence with the source text. For them, faithfulness is more than a priority: it’s a must. But this needn’t make their translations ugly and clumsy.

There’s an Italian saying along the same lines: Traduttore, traditore – ‘Translators are traitors’. I tend to go down this slippery slope sometimes: when I’m unable to represent the style and meaning of a sentence in my translation and fail to make it sound like the original. Untranslatability is a complex notion and I think I’m going to write more about it on our blog one day. By the way, the untranslatability of Witold Gombrowicz’s books was the subject of my MA thesis.

3. To translate you just need to know a second language

Nope.

That’s one of the most common problems in the translation industry these days.

meme - Oh, you speak two languages? You must think you'd make a great translator

Most people speak a second language at some level, most often as non-native speakers of English – and that’s great! Basic knowledge of a foreign language is usually enough to get your message through on holiday or communicate with your Erasmus friends.

But for translation, you need much more. Your goal is to reflect the meaning and phrasing of the source text. You don’t want to be an unfaithful traitor! And you know already that translation is not about copying words from the dictionary. So, what you need is thorough, detailed, complex knowledge of the second language, and insight into what the author’s intention in the text is. Even if the text is a user manual for a dishwasher.

When this subject turns up, translators often challenge non-translators, suggesting that they should try and translate any text to see how difficult it is to do. I’m afraid this experiment might fail to work, simply because nobody is able to objectively evaluate the quality of their own translation in the beginning. That’s why it’s so important to have your translation reviewed by another person and accept feedback.

4. To translate you don’t need to have specialist knowledge of your native language

Unfortunately, this misconception is common among beginner translators. I think it may be related to another popular myth – the native speaker myth.

Yes, native speakers are the best source of knowledge when it comes to colloquial use of language. But take a random English, American, Australian, or Canadian person. Are they deeply aware of how the English language works? Can they give irregular forms of every verb? Do they never make language mistakes?

Of course not! And there’s nothing wrong about it, as long as they don’t go offering translation services based on some vague native notions. When creating a text – and that’s what translation is – you need to have an in-depth knowledge of your native language and to reassess your long-held beliefs concerning it. You need to double-check if you’re unsure of something – and if you’re sure, as well.

I like my native Polish. I like the way it sounds and I enjoy finding juicy collocations and idioms. I love reading and writing in Polish and discovering grammar curiosities. Consequently, I know that my translations are not mechanical representations of the source text, they are not sloppy or awkward. Also, I rely on a variety of sources. I’ve described some of them in my article about the best dictionaries for translators.

5. Translators know all the existing words in their translation languages

Do you know all the existing words in your native language?

I hardly think so.

Translators are no different, and I’ve already discussed this in the above-mentioned articles about dictionaries. We are language specialists but we are not memory sticks with all the dictionaries in the world. We may know more strange words than a regular language user, though. And we take pleasure in weird vocabulary items. We enjoy collecting them. Tasting them on the tongue. Writing them down.

Honourable mention to interpreters: they do need to be able to access various nooks and crannies of their brains quickly to find lexical pieces from various disciplines that are stored there. In fact, research shows that simultaneous interpreters’ working memory is better than that of non-interpreters.

What matters most when you’re a translator is to know how to find the vocabulary you need and how to verify it: here again, I recommend reading my articles about dictionaries.

6. Translators are social outcasts

Without a doubt, translating is a solitary task. You sit at your desk, accompanied by your computer and the text, sometimes by a cat. You usually work from home. In the case of Translatorion, there are two of us, and three cats (the furry kind), so the loneliness factor is much lower.

Then again, translators (unlike interpreters) don’t normally go on business trips or work in teams. Even if you’re part of a team, you don’t meet the other team members often, but you just exchange emails.

This is a complex one. I’m an introvert and I’ve chosen this profession also because I like the peace and quiet that I get by working remotely and on my own. But this doesn’t mean that translators’ work doesn’t involve any contact with people!

Firstly, there are clients. A client is a key person – without them, you won’t get much to work on.

Secondly, there are persons who cooperate with us when creating a publication. From project managers, to proofreaders and reviewers, to graphic designers. For any publishing project to succeed (or any collective project), what matters is effective communication between all parties involved.

Lastly, there are other translators. We take part in industry events, talk about common problems, and – obviously – debunk translation myths. Besides, some online conversations turn into IRL friendships, and that’s cool!

Fun fact: there are studies on translators’ personality traits that show that introversion is not a dominant trait in this profession.

7. Translation is boring and tedious work

This sentence is a myth because it’s an opinion.

Naturally, every person has a different perception of reality and finds different things boring. This is a matter of individual preference.

What I find boring is football and cars. What I find exciting and fulfilling is looking up things in a dictionary, reading about language, and racking my brains to find the right phrase in my translation. That doesn’t suggest that any of the given activities is boring. Different strokes for different folks.

When it comes to monotony, it depends on the kind of translations you do and how you do them. What I value in my work is that I specialise in the field of culture, which gives me a lot of variety. I learn something new with every project. For instance, last year, there was a time when I was working on three projects at the same time, for various cultural institutions and creative agencies. They were two exhibitions – about bees and about rivers – and a book about film and symbolism. How could that make me bored?

On the other hand, I realise that if I only worked with texts in a very narrow thematic field, I might get stuck in a rut. But I make sure it doesn’t happen!

8. Translators translate literature

That’s a myth we frequently come across. And the speaker is usually disappointed with our reply.

I’m not surprised that translators are normally associated with books, and in particular – with fiction, poetry, and drama. Well, this is actually a nice and justified association. But translators translate so many other non-literary texts! This is a huge category: from technical and medical texts, to financial, legal translations, to marketing and journalist transcreation. And to link it with the previous myth – they are not boring at all!

In my case, the borderline between literary and non-literary texts is rather blurred. I often translate museum labels for works of art, and they are definitely literary-ish, poetic, artistic texts. Then, my translations for websites and blogs require plenty of creativity. Last but not least – the publications and albums that I translate for art galleries and cultural institutions get published with their own ISBNs. Does that make them books? It’s up to you to decide.

9. Translators make a lot of money

This is a controversial issue.

There are translators who make piles of money. And there are translators who struggle to make ends meet. In between, there’s a large group of translators who make more or less than that.

There are many factors to consider. I’ll look at three of them.

Firstly – translators earn the equivalent of translated words. In most cases, this means that to earn a lot, you need to work a lot. Translators’ earnings are limited by the time they have at hand and by the speed of their work – which should never come at the cost of quality. That’s our glass ceiling. From what I’ve observed on various translators’ online groups and forums, this leads to increased workaholism in this profession.

Secondly – translators earn what they quote. And this is a huge problem, especially in Poland, because translation prices differ from person to person extremely. Many people charge very little, regardless of their age and experience, and price dumping is a common practice. I sometimes wonder if these people work 48 hours per day to be able to make a living with such rates.

Lastly – translators earn what the clients are willing to pay. That’s a big problem in the translation world, too. The inflation is growing, the minimum wages are growing, the prices of most products and services are growing. But translation rates remain the same. Sadly, our work is often poorly valued – also because of the myths I’m attacking here. There are many direct clients, though, who are aware of the value of effective and accurate communication, and they are ready to pay for a job well done. However, translation agencies tend to treat translators as insignificant cogs in their LSP machines, which is reflected in the disgraceful rates they offer.

10. Translators are dying out

This myth may come true soon.

Machine translation technologies based on neural networks are becoming increasingly accurate and precise. As a result, many clients no longer use human-made translations. This is why we fear that there will be no work for us soon – or that it will be even less valued. In fact, this is already happening in the technical translation sector.

The thing is, artificial intelligence still requires human verification. What’s more, AI-based translation tools fail when confronted with creative translation tasks that require thinking out of their programmed boxes. They do go beyond translating word-for-word, but they do not ask themselves questions about the author’s intentions and hidden meanings.

I cannot predict the future and I am no trend expert. I know that AI tools can be useful for human translators – they are not only a threat. But I believe that I will find the audience for my translation services because I put my time, attention, heart, soul, knowledge, and intuition into what I do. Just like handmade craftwork is worth more than mass-produced objects, human-made, careful, and insightful translation will be appreciated by anyone who cares about quality.

AI-generated image of translators
AI and myths about translators

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I’ve met all sorts of translation myths and stereotypes on my path so far – these are just 10 of these.

Have I succeeded in exposing and debunking them? Have you heard of such myths about translation? Or perhaps you’ve come across other misconceptions about translators and would like to share them with us?

Happy to listen and talk!

Martyna

 

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