Most translators and interpreters can probably relate to those situations in which their work is judged by a layperson who blatantly labels it as a “wrong translation.” Everyone seems to have an opinion about everything these days, wouldn’t you agree? We have become a society of too many “apprentices” but not enough “masters.”
Obviously, some professions are more vulnerable than others. Let’s face it, how many mortals are at least slightly qualified to question the work of an anesthesiologist before a brain surgery? Not many, right? That’s what I thought.
But when it comes to humanities, and especially languages, almost everyone feels entitled to make a comment because… “hey, I spent a high school semester in Poland, so my Polish is flawless” or “my girlfriend is Mexican, so I’m almost fluent in Spanish” and similar ignorant remarks.
If you are a translator, you’ve been there. And if you are studying to become a translator, get ready because you’ll be there some day. But don’t feel bad about it. All you need to do is ignore it.
A lot of people who speak — or believe they speak — another language are usually quick to look at a translation and have an opinion about it. They seem to forget what professionals always say: “speaking another language does not qualify anybody as a translator or interpreter.”
Just think for a moment… of all the people in the world who can swim, how many of them can swim well? Then, among those good ones, how many could be competitive swimmers? And among those even fewer, how many make it to the Olympic games? Now, among those at the Olympics, how many make it to the finals? And how many are as good as Michael Phelps? I’m sure you get the picture by now. Trained translators and interpreters belong in the level of the competitive swimmers and above. But that bilingual person or staff member we all know is merely someone who can probably swim well enough not to drown after drinking two beers before entering the pool. In other words, don’t trust him/her with a professional translation.
Even translators and interpreters are partly guilty of this “sin” as well. We sometimes find ourselves, whether consciously or not, judging other translations in the real world. While it is true that professionals in the same field are qualified to have an informed opinion, there may be other circumstances unbeknownst to us that may have led to that particular translation we are critiquing. And such circumstances may have gone beyond the control of the person who translated the text.
There are many factors that sometimes force translators to do something other than following their guts. Here are some of the most common ones:
client’s requirements — More often than not, clients have a whole set of rules and requirements that influence the translator’s decision. These requirements may not necessarily respond to language specifications but other reasons or fields such as marketing, politics, economics, political correctness, etc. As a result, translators are expected to use a different choice than they would from a linguistic standpoint. They are simply using what is required and there’s not much they can do about that. Some clients are more receptive or flexible and may accept suggestions from the translator. But not all of them do or have the power and/or knowledge to do so.
required terminology, glossary, etc. — Clients and translation agencies frequently have glossaries and specific terms that need to be used to comply with style guides, clients’ requirements, consistency, previous translations and so on and so forth. This usually forces translators to use such terms instead of any others they may prefer, even if the required choices are not necessarily the best ones.
consistency with previous translations — Many times, translators are required to keep consistent with other past translations about the same subject. This consistency may go further than just the terminology, as it may imply other specifications such as style, tone, degree of formality/informality, etc. One simple example of this is the name of organizations, entities, agencies, and the like. Ever been translating something and needed to research the name of a national or global organization? When you find it, you realize it’s not the best translation but you need to use it because that’s the coined term by which it is already publicly known. This is a common phenomenon and, sadly, it does not only affect organization and program names. But once something is widely known by one name/term, translators may need to stick to what has been used in the past for the sake of consistency and communication.
medium — The medium can also condition the tone, style, word choices and other aspects of a translation. In print or online, where the layout can affect the length of the text, the translation must sometimes adapt to the space requirements and this obviously determines the word choices and the syntax which may take more space in some languages than in others. In radio advertising, every second matters and even syllables are counted, which calls for a more concise style than it would normally be used.
In short, there could be numerous reasons for a translation to be one way or another. And it’s not necessarily the translator’s fault. However, most people tend to blame the translator in the first place and not much can be done about it.
We could try to educate people about this but it might seem like we are making excuses for ourselves or our colleagues. So the best thing is to simply ignore it. After all, humans have been wrongly blaming translators for centuries. Take the Roman empire, for instance, they are the ones to thank for the famous “translators, traitors” phrase as well as the execution of more translators than any other civilization in history.
But the best we can do is strive to be better day after day, work hard to provide the best service/product and ignore what others think. People are always going to be judged by others. Think of movie stars. They don’t get to explain or even care to explain their work in some cases. Of course, they make millions and that probably buys their silence, ha! So, rather than give explanations, perhaps we should just ask for a raise.
Good luck with it.