BITS and Pieces

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Busting Translation myths

The number of hilarious questions translators have to answer about their profession is actually quite entertaining to even keep a track of. And more so in India, where engineers, doctors and lawyers are the only lot considered to be doing something worthwhile. “So you must be like a human dictionary, eh?” or “Can’t Google Translate take over your job already?” and my personal favourite “What’s that?” are a few questions you might have to answer at least once (or maybe more frequently if you’re unlucky) in your lifetime.

But hey, we don’t play the blame game! BITS and Pieces collaborates with guest writer Gurudutt Kamath to decode some of the most popular translation industry myths to give you a clear glimpse into the real deal. Mr Kamath is a highly reputed, senior French to English translator and was the 2015 winner of the BITS Professional Translator of the Year award. And he is by far the most perfect person to shed some light on this topic because he has been there and done that in the true sense of the term.

1. Translation is only about knowing the two languages well

No. Translators need domain knowledge as well along with a plethora of other skill sets. Domain knowledge refers to the subject-specific understanding and, in case of translators, an understanding of jargon. For most people though, a translator is nothing more than a language enthusiast.

A friend once told me that they handled construction projects in Algeria and most of the translations that he got were hilarious. Such laughable quality comes from the evident lack of domain knowledge. It is also important to note that the documents to be translated come from every sphere of life – industrial, legal, medical, technical, commercial and so on. So let’s take the example of a computer related contract. The translator will need to know the basics of contract drafting and also the computer-related jargon. Medical translations are also an excellent example where the translator can deliver quality translation only if he has enough domain knowledge.

2. Anyone who knows two languages can translate

Well, I am sure they can. But can they translate well? Not everyone. Along with a good command over the language pair(s) and domain knowledge, a lot of research goes into any and every translation. As I mentioned earlier, a translator may need to translate any kind of document from any domain and it isn’t practically possible to know the basics of each domain that one might encounter. This is where having good research skills steps in where the translator knows how and from where to gain the knowledge and that too, in the quickest way.

3. All translators can translate bi-directionally

In India, there are no strict requirements for translators. Forget about having a degree in translation, you do not need any degree to work as a translator. But this leads people to believe that if one merely knows two languages, one can easily translate from one language to another. Experienced and professional agencies, however, would know better that bi-directional translation is possible only when the translator is equally strong in both the languages as well as in both the cultures. Preferably a native. For example, someone who can translate from English to Marathi may not necessarily be able to translate from Marathi to English. The difficulty would be even more with foreign languages.

4. A translator can easily be an interpreter

The skill sets required for translation and for interpretation differ greatly. The vocabulary for speaking and writing is different. The tone and the language register can also be different. Indeed, good translators can be good interpreters. But these would be few. Did you know there are specialised interpreters for telephone interpretation, for courts, immigration, business, patents, and so on. A native “speaker” is always in demand to get the most accurate translation into the target language. In interpretation, you would need a native speaker in both languages! In addition to the two languages, an interpreter needs to have a sound knowledge of both the cultures.

5. Machine translations will replace translators

The quality of machine translation is improving every year. Google translate is a wonderful tool. Do remember that the quality will differ from language to language and from tool to tool. But machines are not designed to take into consideration the context, culture or domains. Machines will require Artificial Intelligence (plus Emotional Intelligence) to understand slang, language nuances, the tone and sayings. Language and usage keeps on changing. Which is why, machine translations cannot ever catch up with the day to day changes in language and context. A good, intelligent, translator will always be required.

6. Translation is easy and word to word

No translation myth is this misguided! The level of difficulty varies from translator to translator and from document to document. But translation is never word to word. A translator is expected to translate the meaning and the weight of the source and never the actual words. He is expected to make the end product perfect both linguistically and culturally. But since not everyone understands this foremost rule of translating, word to word translations have caused unintended humour more often than we’d like. A detergent ad, for example, was once translated from English to Arabic but the end product was catastrophic for the company because the order of the before (dirty) and after (clean) pictures was never changed to suit the right to left reading of Arabic.

7. The translation industry is small scale

According to Nataly Kelly, VP, Marketing at Smartling and Co-Author of ‘Found in Translation,’ “The global market for outsourced language services is worth more than US$33 billion in 2012. The largest segment of the market is written translation, followed by on-site interpreting and software localisation.” The translation market is expected to grow by 42% from 2010 to 2020 in USA, as opposed to 14% for all professions. I rest my case.

8. Translating is a freelance and leisure activity

While some translators indeed freelance, translation isn’t a leisure activity. It is not something people can do to earn quick and easy money. Like let’s say engineering or teaching, translation is a full fledged profession that requires discipline and professionalism and has its own set of skills that are indispensable.

To conclude, I would like to leave you with some food for thought. My client once told me, “Your translation is better than the original.” I wondered if this was one more myth that I could add to my list. Could a translation actually be better than the original?

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Gurudutt Kamath Gurudutt Kamath is a French to English translator based in Mumbai and is regarded as the Father of Technical Writing in India. With an experience of over 20 years, he started his career as subeditor of Amar Chitra Katha under the legendary Anant Pai. He is a fitness enthusiast and a chef at heart.