Wordsmith Translation: The Pitfalls

Many people who need to purchase a translation have limited experience and understanding of the translation process. This section is designed to help them avoid the major hazards and hopefully bring them through to the other side of the process with a quality translation and a greater understanding of the translation process.

The differences between bilinguals and translators

This is the single biggest mistake people make in translation, and from both sides of the fence. A lot of people think bilinguals can translate, and very often bilinguals themselves think they can translate. It is time this myth was shot down and buried for good.

A bilingual is a person who speaks two languages fluently, either from birth or because they learnt a second language later in life. Firstly, let’s make the very important distinction between ‘fluent’ and ‘mother tongue’.

For those who don’t speak another language, fluency is often understood to be the highest level of language competence, but this is quite misleading. Fluent speakers can express themselves easily in their languages and do not need to translate in their minds from one language to another. They often have a very wide general vocabulary but quite a limited specialised vocabulary. Fluent speakers’ language use is very often linked to specific situations or communication with specific people. Their lexical knowledge directly reflects their areas of exposure to the second language.

For example, someone who learnt French working on a farm when they were a teenager might speak the language fluently in general situations and they may know every word possibly relevant to life on a farm, but they would in all likelihood have a very difficult time conducting a conversation on philosophy or workplace health and safety practices in that language. Similarly, someone who was bilingual from birth and always spoke Japanese at home with their parents but who was educated and went into the workforce in Australia would most likely be quite uncomfortable in a job interview situation in Japan and would have great difficulty reading a university text book in Japanese. And yet these two individuals are perfectly bilingual. They speak both their languages quite fluently and would probably never imagine that their language skills are somehow limited. In fact these would be precisely the sort of people who would volunteer to translate your business plan or financial report for you, but you would be ill-advised to accept.

So then where does a translator differ?

A translator is exactly one of these individuals described above who at some stage of their life has decided to make their languages their job. They have consciously gone out to fill all those lexical gaps that a bilingual never needs to think about. They have gone and lived for long periods in the country of their second language in order to become not only bilingual but bicultural. Most importantly, they have undertaken tertiary study; not in their languages, but in translation.

A bilingual brings their language competencies to a translation class as the bare materials they have to work with, the way a writer brings his typewriter and ten fingers. In a translation class, with perfect command of both languages as a given, bilinguals begin to learn language transfer skills; or the ability to bring across meaning and form from one language to another without distortion.

The most unfortunate element of this translation pitfall is that the instigator of the error is often the bilingual themselves. Bilinguals have a marked tendency to overestimate their skills in their weaker language. Whilst they wouldn’t entertain for a minute writing a television presentation or important dinner speech in their mother tongue, recognising that they are not experienced writers, somehow this reflex goes out the window when it comes to their other language and they suddenly feel able to write any material, no matter how technical or how important. This is perhaps because their second language is perceived as a special skill in itself and therefore doesn’t require anything additional.

It is therefore of utmost importance that both bilinguals and potential purchasers of translation realise the very significant difference between themselves and a qualified, experienced translator. Like anything else, leave the job to the professionals.

The differences between translators and other language professionals

But my friend is a professional- he’s a university lecturer of French linguistics!

This is the second biggest mistake people make in translation.

Being a language teacher, linguist, bilingual secretary, interpreter, journalist or writer are all jobs which require very specific sets of skills. They are all noble professions which require talent, training and experience, and all in the field of languages. But a veterinarian is not a doctor and a surgeon is not a dentist. Whilst some of the skills required in one or another of these jobs do overlap with those required to be a translator, there are also far more which are unique to translation and which cannot be guessed at through association. Get the right man to do the job and the rest falls into place.

And what about students?

It is also quite common for people to use translation students in a bid to save some money, but it doesn’t take too much thought to see the weakness of this plan. Would you entrust your end of year report to an accounting student? Or volunteer for surgery by a medical student to save a few dollars? Think about what your document is really worth to you and think about the cost of the damage if it is mistranslated. Nine times out of ten you’ll end up saving much more money by getting it done professionally in the first place.

Why choose a freelancer over an agency?

So what’s the difference really between a freelance translator and a translation agency? And which one is best for your translation project?

There are several reasons why I encourage people to deal directly with a freelance (or in-house) translator over a translation agency. The most obvious of these is you are taking out the middle man and getting what you want directly from the person doing it for you, without having to pass information along a grapevine which may or may not be working efficiently. For the sake of optimum communication and immediate response, a freelancer is better every time.

Secondly, it’s all about the money. You need to consider who is working for these agencies, and what they’re getting paid. In order for agencies to offer their clients competitive prices and still make a profit, they need to be paying their translators a third (or less) of what they are charging you. So what kind of translators can accept to work for these reduced rates? Students. Amateurs. Those who don’t yet have enough experience or confidence in their skills to be charging the industry standards. The reality of the situation is that people who have the skills and experience know what they’re worth and go out and get their own clients. Freelancers often charge less than the large agencies too, so you both come out better off.

Thirdly, a freelancer offers transparent quality. How can you tell the quality of someone’s work if you don’t speak the language in question and you can’t see or even talk to that person? You know nothing about them, not even their name. The agency they work for seems legitimate, but the agency is not the person writing your text in French. With a freelancer you can see exactly what you’re buying: do they have a professional website? Do they sound knowledgeable and friendly on the phone? Do they have a secure payment process in place? Do their business practices instil trust? Basically, do they know what they’re doing? After direct contact with a freelancer you will be able to answer yes or no to all of these questions; with an agency you’ll never know.

Finally, the personal contact and on-going relationship with the same translator just means that the work they do gets better and better and better. You know that you have the same person working on your texts every time, they get to know the ins and outs of your business closely and the product they produce is as close to perfect as if you wrote it yourself.

See the keep your translators on board section below.

There is one instance, however, where I would recommend you take your translation project to an agency, and that is in the case where you have one source text which needs to be translated into a number of different target languages and you have a limited time frame. In this case an agency would be your best bet to get the job done cost-efficiently and on time. The agency would also be in charge of ensuring uniformity across all documents.

When you do go to an agency, look for one which is owned and run by someone who is a professional translator themselves. So many agencies are run simply by managers and administrators- people who know about business, not about translation.

Is the price right?

This may seem like a very elementary concept, but I am constantly surprised by people who overlook this step and are unhappy with the quality of their translations that they purchased at rock bottom prices. Regrettably, today’s translation market is flooded with bilingual secretaries, international students and university academics dabbling a little in translation on the side and charging the rates that their hobby warrants (see differences between bilinguals and translators and differences between translators and other language professionals above), so it’s easy to feel that the ‘worth’ of translation is as low as these amateurs make it seem. But the reality is that these people are producing a very different product from that of a professional translator.

In translation, as in everything else, you get what you pay for. Consider the level of training and experience necessary to competently do what a professional translator does; you are looking at a similar amount of time as it takes to become a competent neurosurgeon or aerospace engineer (see training to be a translator). If you’re paying your translator little more than your baby-sitter, there’s something seriously amiss. Most professional translators in Australia charge approx. 25-45 cents per word, depending on technicality and urgency. If your translator is charging much less than this, you need to start worrying about the quality of their work.

One simple way of establishing a budget for your translation needs is to consider how much you spent drawing up your new advertising campaign or financial report: how many people worked on it? for how long? Now think that this document should have exactly the same worth no matter what language it’s in, and reconsider your translation budget accordingly.

I’m too busy to communicate with the translator

This may sound like an innocent enough statement, and many managers are indeed extremely busy people, but you would be surprised at how many translations have been almost completely useless to their purchasers simply because the translator was not provided with ample enough information about the target text desired. The text a translator produces will differ greatly depending on its purpose, target audience and intended medium, so make sure your translator knows exactly what you want and what you want it for.

So if your translator is asking you a lot of questions, take it as a good sign- they are trying to produce the most effective text for your particular purpose.

See our sample Translation Information Sheet.

Post-translation meddling

Again, a very common mistake which is so easily avoidable. Last minute errors can easily slip into an otherwise flawless translation in several ways:

  1. You have received your translation back from the translator and send it off for typesetting and graphics before publication. The designer accidentally deletes a word or finds that one of the titles is too long to fit in the desired space. Pocket dictionary in hand and schoolboy French in mind, the designer patches up the problem spot and sends a blatant error off to print for 100,00 copies with your company’s name all over it.
  2. Wishing to save on translation costs, you decide to leave out some of the more basic information which you are sure you can handle yourself, such as opening times or your contact details. You know the days of the week in French, right? But are you aware of the typographical conventions in the other language? Did you know that the days of the week are not capitalised in French and hours are given in 24 hour time, for example? Don’t assume to know the little things and leave it to the professionals to do the whole job.
  3. You have received your finished translation but have since changed the original in a few places. It’s nothing major, just a few words here and there, a few titles and so on. You decide not to bother the translator and ‘fix’ it yourself. As a consequence, all the work the translator did on your text and all the money you paid for it are in vain; just a few serious errors call the credibility of your entire text into question.
  4. In the editing process you discover some imperfections in the translation. The editor then ‘corrects’ these and you go to print. Even where the translated text does represent an imperfection, the editor’s version is very rarely accurate. If in doubt as to an element in your translation, do not attempt to fix it yourself; go back to the translator and check with them that the text says what you want it to say. If it does not, the translator will then find the appropriate expression.

All of these reasons are why many translators insist on signing off all final proofs in order to protect their reputations from any fiddling with their work by editors or others in the post-translation phase. This is in your best interest too.

So, the golden rule: the absolute last person to see your text before it goes to print should be your translator.

Keep your translators on board

Finally, here are just a few tips to help your relationship with your translator function at its very best:

As explained above, the longer the collaboration, the better the product. The more you work with the same translator and spend time educating them about your business, the better your translations become. A healthy long-term relationship with a freelancer will find them prioritising your work over once-off work from other clients. Everybody benefits from this sort of collaboration.

Always give your translator as much time as possible to complete your translations. Even an extremely talented translator cannot produce perfect texts in an unreasonable amount of time. Giving plenty of notice also means there’s a far greater chance your translator will be available when you need them to be, and you’ll save money by avoiding an urgent work surcharge.

Everybody likes to be acknowledged for their work. Pay your translator a compliment and print their name on the translated documents. Giving credit to your translator costs you nothing and makes them work all the more diligently knowing their name is attached to their text.

Finally, consider creating an in-house glossary. If your company regularly uses translation services, having a tailor-made glossary specifically made for the vocabulary of your business makes your translations more homogenous (and therefore more professional) and your translation turn-around time even faster.

For more tips on purchasing translations, download the American Translators Association’s booklet:

In English: Getting It Right
In French: Faire les bons choix