From Dream to Reality

The fact that, after completing an MA in translation, some qualified students decide not to pursue a career in that field after all shows that even aspiring linguists can have misconceptions about translation, and that “speaking another language” is far from enough to be a capable translator.

Some students, believing that their degree in two or more foreign languages already gives them the skills required and that an MA will only serve as a self-promotion tool, are in for a shock when faced with an unfamiliar or highly specialised topic. Even after spending hours researching the concepts and terminology, it is difficult to be confident about your work when you do not have sufficient subject knowledge to start with. Being fluent in Japanese or Russian does not equate to being fluent in astronomy or philosophy. This is when the penny drops: a degree in languages is only a foundation requirement and never qualifies the graduate to be a translator.

Another aspect of translation that often surprises the untrained linguist is that there are various ways of translating a given text. We need to know what its context and purpose are, who will read it, and how and where it will be published. This dictates the style and tone of the text (e.g. scholarly, formal but jargon-free or approachable – this is not always obvious from the source text), the length of sentences or paragraphs for spatial reasons (e.g. in the context of a magazine or book where the text has to fit in an existing layout), etc. While accuracy is always high on the agenda, it doesn’t have to be the utmost priority for every project. For example, many marketing translations require an element of creativity to make the text engaging, snappy, and exciting; this is called “transcreation”. Translation can be flexible, but knowing when and how to apply this flexibility requires expert judgment.

This is why the would-be translator (and the client) must understand what defines a professional translator and appreciate that speaking a couple of languages – however fluently – does not make anyone a translator.

penny coinPhoto: Flickr/theilr

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