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8 Misconceptions About Translation and Communication

by Sean Hopwood

The translation industry is huge but not many people know about it or pay it that much attention unless they have something to do with language services. People who are employed in the field are typically asked what kind of work they actually do or if they speak several languages. Industry terms are likely to be met with a blank expression and even the most common term like translate may require a long explanation.

Given such a scenario, it's no wonder that several misconceptions about translation and consequently, communication, abound.

If your knowledge of translation is hazy, you want to clarify what is involved in translation and you hope to understand the misconceptions that plague the industry, here are some of them.

1. English is commonly spoken so there is no need to translate

A number of clients still believe that they do not need translation services because many people around the world understand and speak English. English may be the language of business, but it is important to understand that in the global business arena, most of the English-speaking business people are those who are in top-level positions. When dealing with new customer bases, communicating with foreign contacts and setting up business partnerships, it is critical to talk to them in the language they commonly use. One thing that helps guarantee your success in the international market is ensuring that your business partners and target customers fully understand your company and the products or services you are offering them.

2. A bilingual person can be a translator

It's a misconception among many people that if a person is bilingual, he or she can automatically be a translator (or interpreter). Interestingly, many business executives would not assign the preparation of text for technical and marketing documents to any team member, yet they think that a bilingual employee would be able to handle the translation of their documents.

You have to bear in mind that translation is a complex process and requires training and expertise. A professional translator not only needs to be a skilled and creative writer but must be a native speaker of the target language and fluent in the source language. These qualities ensure that the translation is accurate, grammatically correct and very easy to understand.

The required qualities may be present in one of your employees but if you are going to add translation to your staff's many tasks, it will put more burden to him or her. Further, as translation takes time, it will take your employee away from his or her original tasks. The translation will take more time as well, since he or she will have to set aside time to concentrate on the special task. Are you willing to wait for the translation to be completed? Would you allow your staff to reduce his/her job performance?

3. Translation is just word substitution from one language to another

Technically, it is true that translation is partly word substitution. Translators exchange the words from the original language into appropriate words into the chosen (target) language.

However, translation is a complex process that requires a translator not only to be fluent in the original (source) language but also in the target language. It is not a literal word-for-word exchange. Translation requires the translator to understand the context of the document in order to convey the intended message properly. The work needs the experience and expertise of a trained translator to understand the nuances of both languages, the grammatical issues and choose the right words and idioms that will fit the end user of the translation.

Each translation project is different and the requirements vary. The way the document is written varies as well. Content for healthcare is different from a legal document and a literary piece is different from a manufacturing manual. Therefore, the translation has to adapt to the preferences of the persons who would be reading the translation. If the translation is intended for high-level professionals such as doctors, engineers, scientists, teachers and others, the language and terminologies must fit their profession. General information, product descriptions, instructions and manuals for public use should use words and terms that are simple and easy to understand.

Within a translation company, several people are involved in a translation project, such as a project manager, the translator, an editor and a proofreader. They typically use dictionaries, references, databases, special terminology and computer-aided tools to ensure the proper and accurate translation of a document.

4. A translator can be an interpreter or vice versa

This is another misconception that should be clearly addressed. Both are language services, but the two jobs, although often interchanged, are different from one another. In simple terms, a translator handles written content. An interpreter works with the spoken word.

A translator reads and extracts the context from the document to be translated. He or she has more time to fully digest the content and use references and other tools to render accurate translation. An interpreter has a higher level of proficiency in the source and target languages.

There are two main types of interpreting services.

  1. Simultaneous interpreting. This means the interpreter renders what is being said in the target language as a person speaks. The interpreter has to listen very carefully to what the speaker is saying, as there is no time to paraphrase the lines. Simultaneous interpreting is typical in trade shows, big conferences and large multinational meetings.
  2. Consecutive interpreting. Hre the interpreter repeats what the speaker said in the target language when the speaker pauses or stops, typically after one to five minutes. The interpreter usually takes notes in consecutive interpreting, as it would be very difficult to memorize everything that has been said before the speaker stops speaking. Consecutive interpreting is applicable to court hearings and small business meetings.

5. Translators only know languages

Fluency in at least one language pair (source and target languages) is required in a translator. But the work demands much more. A translator has to understand the culture of the people where the source document came from and a deeper knowledge of the target culture. This knowledge is essential in order to make communication easier. The translator not only renders the content into another language but has to understand the level of understanding of the target audience, their cultural preferences and how they consume and use the information.

6. You do not need a course in translation to be a translator

Many people believe that if you can speak other languages you can be a translator even without studying it. You might be surprised to know that there are many colleges offering programs in translation studies. Those who are interested in the profession are interested in linguistics as well. Typically, you need a bachelor's degree, but if you want to advance in your chosen career, there are schools that offer Master's and Ph.D. degree courses in translation. Aside from learning the theory and practice of translation, there will be several other programs included in the course, aside from the foreign language programs.

Some schools offer specialized translation courses to train students for positions in specific fields such as legal, business, education, mental health and medicine.

7. The saying "customer is always right" applies to translation

Although it is generally accepted that you should cater to what the customer wants, in the case of translation, there are some minor issues with this generally accepted behavior. The translation project manager must fully understand the scope of the translation project. A client may say that they need English to Spanish translation for documents they are sending to Latin America.

This is a general request. In the industry, the request should be specific. The translation company has to know the exact location in Latin America because different Spanish dialects are spoken in the region. Moreover, French and Portuguese are also spoken in many countries in Latin America. If the client does not know, the translation company can help determine which specific Spanish dialect is spoken in their target locations, or they may have to translate into Portuguese rather than Spanish. Moreover, if the content is for a specific industry, the translation company will have to locate a subject matter expert to handle the translation work.

8. Online translation tools are good enough

You would be surprised to know that many companies still believe that they can use the free online translation tools for their communication. The online translation tools do not understand context and other grammatical and cultural requirements. They typically perform word-for-word translation and provide translation outputs that are inaccurate and difficult to understand. For effective communication and to preserve your company's reputation, work with professional translators so you can reach your international business partners and consumers in their own language.

In conclusion

Forget the misconceptions about translation because language services benefit individuals, groups, organizations and almost every industry. With the opening of new markets around the world and you wanting to explore and conquer these markets, you should understand the benefits of translation for you and your company.

About the writer

Sean Hopwood is the President and CEO of Day Translations, Inc., a human-powered translation company. Sean has a deep love for languages, soccer and new technologies. He spends whatever time is left from his busy schedule to write about business management.

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