The Trials and Tribulations of Being a Translator (a Trilogy): Chapter 1 – The Misunderstood

To professional translators around the globe, the sheer ignorance of the lay community about their profession always comes as a surprise. You could argue that our (non-)cherished linguists should have learned to lower their expectations by now, but sometimes the misconceptions and lack of regard are simply too much to keep one’s mouth shut.
whats it like being a translator

Thankfully, this blog is here to shed some light on the ins and outs of being a translator.

“I watch TV shows in English without subtitles. I could be a translator if I wanted to.”

Next time, please watch them with subtitles. You will improve your writing skills along with your listening comprehension. On a serious note, however, this is a sentence every translator has had the pleasure of hearing and rolling their eyes at. 

If you are capable of watching a film and not getting completely lost in the incredibly intricate Marvel-inspired plot without subtitles, you’re halfway there to becoming a professional translator. 

As if taking your dad’s car for a spin around an abandoned parking lot suddenly transforms you into a professional rally driver.

Most professional translators would not consider their profession to be one of the most challenging and revolutionary crafts in the world, but we still need to put things into perspective here. 

what being a translator actually means

If we are honest, there really aren’t that many expert communities that have to put up with the same everyday incursions by Netflix enthusiasts telling them how to do their job properly. 

That is why translators need to develop a thick skin, as they will inevitably face a myriad of situations where unqualified people will have a go at their product.

And you know what’s even worse? They can’t really do anything about it. As with any other business, the customer is king, so they just have to take it on the chin and move on.

One of the key reasons for this perennial struggle between translators and their end consumers lies in the fact that the quality of translator’s work cannot really be measured by any standard metric. Even if you deliver a translation of the highest quality that 9 out of 10 people are completely satisfied with, that one disgruntled customer will make sure to launch a tirade of abuse at your work, your company and the “fact that no one does their job properly anymore”. 

The sad state of affairs is that people who are unhappy with something are way more generous when it comes to expressing their discontent than satisfied customers when it comes to giving out praise. Because translation is a purely intellectual task with extremely preferential expectations on the client side, the end results will always be subjective and are bound to face criticism. There is just no way around this problem.

Translating is the same as interpreting

Remote interpretation services at Taia's

Alright, let’s keep this one brief. No, it is not. They are actually miles apart and the set of skills required to do either job properly is completely different.

People tend to confuse the two because, in their essence, they both deal with transferring content from one language to another, but the medium of conveying the message is completely different.

Translators translate texts that are written. Even sworn (certified) or court translations, as they are sometimes referred to, are translations in the form of a written text that are done by a sworn translator who has been appointed by a legal authority to provide official translations. They are not to be confused with court interpreters, as is often the case in some countries with bewildering, badly-defined nomenclature.

On the other hand, interpreters translate the communication between people who are speaking. We normally distinguish between simultaneous and consecutive interpreting. Simultaneous interpreting takes place in real-time, mirroring the sentences of the original speaker only in a different language. Simultaneous interpreters are the people sitting in booths with their headphones on, basically.

In consecutive interpreting, the interpreter waits for the speaker to pause and then translates the segment that has just been uttered. These segments can vary greatly in length, so consecutive interpreters have to rely mostly on their memory. They are the ones standing next to politicians and other important people.

Being a translator is a fast and easy way to make a living

We will cover the “easy” part in Chapter 2, our next blog. Let’s focus on the “fast” part for now. Most outsiders have unrealistic expectations regarding the time that is needed to translate a certain document. They believe that translating a text will take the same amount of time it took to write that text.

In reality, professional translators can usually translate between 250 and 500 words per hour, that is between one and two standard pages of text. This depends heavily on the original document, however, as progress is often slower with very technically demanding documents.

Nevertheless, it is reasonable to expect that a translator will translate anywhere between 8 and 12 pages of text per day, so take that into consideration the next time you order a translation.

MT to help translators

Translators love to work for free in their spare time

Are human translators better than machine translators?

The challenges of being a translator do not always end once they punch out at work. As ridiculous as the notion may sound, translators are actual human beings who have even been known to make friends. Outrageous, I know! 

Each and every one of us knows someone who is either a professional translator or a trained linguist who dabbles in translation every so often.

Most translators are delightful people – that much is true – but that doesn’t mean that after they have finished working for the day, they will start working for free for all their close relatives or distant acquaintances.

Saturated with all the information they had to process and reconvey that day, I’m sure they simply won’t be able to contain their excitement about translating your son’s bachelor thesis, your husband’s certificate of absence or some kind of criminal record.

Sure, ask them for a small favour every now and then, but try to offer something in return (i.e. payment). First and foremost though, keep in mind that they probably don’t want to spend their every waking hour staring at a computer screen looking at your rambling wall of text.

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