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What Does a Translator Do?

July 10, 2011

When I tell people  I’m a translator, most really don’t seem to know what that means or what I do. The first question is usually, how many languages do you speak? While many translators do work in more than one language pair, this is by no means a requirement. Some people assume that I travel all the time, which is sadly not the case. First, let me start by defining some key terminology in the translation industry before I get into what a translator does. The terms translator and interpreter are often used interchangeably, but they are two distinct professions requiring very different skill sets. A translator deals with written text and an interpreter deals with the spoken word. I’ll discuss interpreters in another post. Source language is the language from which a document is translated and target language is the language into which a document is translated. A working language is the one that a person knows well enough to work in at a professional level.

The translation process goes well beyond the simple replacement of a word in one language into another. A translator not only needs to have a thorough understanding of the source language text and subject matter, but also the ability to convey (translate) the meaning, mood and style of the author accurately, naturally and completely into the target language. Merely being bilingual does not qualify a person to translate any more than being able to write makes one a poet. Translators must have excellent grammar and writing skills to produce translations that don’t sound like translations. As a general rule, translators translate from their working language(s) into their native language. There are some exceptions, such as second-generation speakers who have grown up with essentially two native languages, though even in these cases, one language is tends to be more dominant.

The work environment for translators varies by country. Here in the U.S., many companies and government entities do staff in-house translators, providing the stability of a 9-5 job without the need to find new clients on a regular basis. Nonetheless, most translators work as freelancers. This allows them quite a bit of flexibility as they aren’t tethered to any one location and can literally work anywhere in the world. Since they are usually paid by the word and rely on work from different sources, speed and quality are vital to their livelihood. That’s why even though most translators are generalists, they usually specialize in one or more fields. It’s much easier to translate a subject that you are familiar with than to struggle for hours with one that you don’t even understand well in your own language. Most translation agencies seek out specialized translators for subject-specific projects since the quality is almost always better than a generalist’s translation of the same material.

Technology has completely changed the translation profession. Nowadays all translations are done on a computer, usually with the assistance of on-line dictionaries and glossaries. Most translators also use translation memory and terminology management software. This is not computer-generated translation, but rather specialized software that archives a translator’s own work for use within a large document or for future updates of the same or similar documents. The software also enables translators and translation companies to share translation memories, which are files containing previous translations and accepted terminology, that the software uses to help maintain consistency among different translators over time. Typically when a translation agency sends a freelance translator a document to translate, the request is accompanied by a translation memory. Before delivering the translation, it should be thoroughly reviewed and edited for technical accuracy and correct grammar.

This is just a brief glimpse into the profession I love. Translators are the unseen individuals responsible for helping the world to communicate every day. You undoubtedly read their work all the time. When it’s done well, you don’t even notice.

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