Do you know what it takes to be a translator? Here are 6 busted myths that might surprise you

Translation is everywhere—not only in literature, but also in politics, religion, culture, economics, history… but we don’t always notice its omnipresence. It’s not uncommon to read a translation and not even realize it’s been translated. In an increasingly globalized and interconnected world, the need for quality translations grows, which begs the question: how much do we really know about the industry and how true are the things we do “know”? Here are the 6 most common misconceptions about the translation field:

1. Translating and interpreting require the same skills

This is perhaps the most common myth about the translation industry—and one that makes translators’ and interpreters’ skin crawl. By definition, translation is written communication and interpretation is oral (or sign-language) communication, so the two inherently require different skills. Of course, there’s some overlap: excellent knowledge of both the source language and target language is crucial. That said, being a good translator is synonymous with being a good reader, writer, researcher and critical thinker. Translators, unlike interpreters, have to take into account where the publication will be sold or made available and who the audience is. An interpreter’s audience is immediate and present—unless the interpretation is televised—which implies a whole different skill set: public speaking, multitasking, quick thinking, and active listening. While some language service professionals both translate and interpret, many choose only one according to which profession best suits their personality and skill set.

2. Translation is a niche market

Since translations often go unnoticed and most language services are done by small agencies rather than large corporations, many think the market is not a big one. While it may come as a surprise, the global translation industry is actually enormous—in 2015, a study by the Common Sense Advisory found that the industry for outsourced language services worldwide was worth about $40 billion and that the market has an average annual growth of 5.52%. So while you might not hear about it or see it, the industry is booming and is expected to stay that way.

3. If you’re bilingual, you can translate

There is a popular—and false—belief that if you know two languages very well, you can also translate between the two well. This is not always the case. As mentioned in #1, translation requires a host of skills: writing, critical thinking, research, and sometimes even a background in the field in question, whether it be finance, politics, technology, medicine, law… For this reason, more and more aspiring translators all over the world are opting to earn college degrees or certificates in translation, and even taking classes in the specific field they want to specialize in. So while fluency is essential, it’s certainly not the only requirement.

multilingual content

4. There’s such a thing as a “word-for-word translation”

When requesting language services from translators, many clients ask for a “word-for-word” or “literal” translation. It’s true that, depending on the project and its goal, some translations end up being more direct, straightforward and close to the original. However, given that every language is complex, loaded with cultural influences, context-sensitive, syntactically distinct and constantly evolving, there’s no such thing as a word-for-word translation. Take, for example, the word “bread.” An equivalent exists for it in every modern world language, yet does it really mean the same thing? If you ask for bread in Turkey, surely you’ll get something slightly different than if you order the “word-for-word” translation for it in England, Mexico, Russia, or Denmark. So while translators do their best to maintain meaning and ensure accuracy, it’s not so black and white—there will always be bias and multiple factors to consider when choosing how to best translate a text.

5. Google Translate is all-knowing

Among the sea of machine translation tools, Google Translate has made a name for itself as an excellent—and free!—tool. Every day, roughly 200 million people take advantage of its services in over 100 languages. The question remains: are these numbers the result of the service’s accuracy or other factors, like its brand, availability, and user-friendliness?

In a recent study by BMJ, Google Translate was put to the test in the medical field. 10 medical statements were translated by the tool into 26 different European, Asian and African languages. They were then translated back into English by native speakers to compare for accuracy.

These were the statements:

  1. Your wife is stable
  2. Your husband had a cardiac arrest
  3. Your husband had a heart attack
  4. Your wife needs to be ventilated
  5. Your child’s condition is life threatening
  6. Your child has been fitting
  7. Your child will be born premature
  8. Your husband has the opportunity to donate his organs
  9. We will need your consent for operation
  10. Did he have high fever at home?

Overall, only 57.7% of the translations were deemed correct (in other words, they made sense and were factually correct; grammar mistakes were allowed). In some situations, there were some grave mistakes; for example, “Your child is fitting” translated in Swahili to “Your child is dead.” In Polish, “Your husband has the opportunity to donate his organs” translated to “Your husband can donate his tools.”

As you can see, Google Translate is not perfect or all-knowing. It’s a great tool to use as a starting point, or perhaps for getting the gist of a text, but for professional purposes—and especially, life-threatening circumstances like in the medical or legal fields—it’s always best to go with a human translator.

Translating

For more on this topic, check out our article Don’t leave it to Google Translate: The perils of machine translation and why the human touch is more important than ever

6. Translation is a dying field

Because of this widespread over-confidence in Google Translate and similar machine translation tools, many believe human translation services are on the way out. But market research says otherwise: the Common Sense Advisory reports that the translation services industry is actually growing and is expected to reach $45 billion in global worth by 2020. How is this possible? The answer is simple: with an increasingly globalized and interconnected world, the need for multilingual content and translations is increasing, and this type of work simply cannot be done solely (and accurately) by machine translation.

Translation is here to stay—and perhaps more important than ever. If you’re interested in language services, whether it be as an employee, employer, business, etc., it’s important to understand what the work entails as well as its importance and impact.