Machine translation is frequently perceived as presenting a threat to the translation industry, but do novice translators pose a similar risk?

A post on the Multilizer’s Translation Blog claims that, in fact, inexperienced and unskilled translators are the primary threat to the sector. The major reason for this is the perception that translation is something anyone who can speak two languages can do. Whether they were raised bilingual or they have lived abroad for years and gained a grasp of the local language, if someone is a fluent speaker it does not automatically mean they will also be adept at the art of producing a written translation.

What it takes to translate

Translation involves a whole different set of skills to simply having a grasp of the language. For one, the way people speak and the written form of a language often differ substantially. So, in many cases a translator has to not only be a good linguist, but a competent writer as well.

In addition, knowledge of the original text’s subject area is also useful. Often, professional translators specialise not only in a particular language but also in an area of expertise. This could be an academic subject like history or science, or – increasingly – it could be an industry area, such as healthcare or manufacturing. This knowledge means that the linguist will know the correct way to translate more technical words and phrases, and will also be able to flag up any differences between the industry in the two different countries and make the client aware of this.

Using someone with good language skills but no professional translation experience to produce a translation means that even if there are no significant errors, the reader will still recognise it as being a little ‘off’. It might be the flow of sentences, the way ideas are broken up or that the idioms don’t quite read right, but it is likely there will be something distinctly un-fluent about the finished product. This can be off-putting to the reader and see them losing interest – and faith in the company.

Iina, writing for Translation Blog, notes that to produce a good translation requires a “knowledge of culture, values and nuances […] those who know the most know that they don’t know it all”. Indeed, many professional linguists who have been working as translators for most of their lives will admit they are always learning new things and that their knowledge is never complete.

Weighing up the options

The risk to quality a customer takes by hiring an unskilled translator is probably as great as if they choose to use a machine translation. However, so much has been said and written about the lack of quality provided by a machine translation compared to a human that clients are probably more aware of these risks and so any decision they make is, at least, informed. As a result, it is most likely the unskilled translator who presents the biggest threat to the industry, as the client may assume that because they have found someone who can speak their target language, the finished product will be of high quality.

However, there are of course occasions where either a fluent speaker or a machine translator is adequate for the job. If it’s a couple of words that need translating, a machine can return the result in seconds and – in many cases – for free. Should a customer email need translating, an employee who is able to speak two languages will be able to offer answers. To make sense of a newsletter sent by an overseas’ office, a bilingual speaker can provide an insight.

On the other hand, if a business needs a client brochure, valuable market research, a manufacturers’ handbook or user guidelines translated, they should only ever go to a professional. Failure to do this could result in content being lost in translation. For instance, a brochure may not read fluently and put off the reader. Information gained from market research may be missed out; lessening its value. A manufacturers’ handbook might not translate the technical terminology correctly, resulting in confusion. A user guideline could miss out important information, putting them at risk. Any one of these outcomes could wind up causing damage and costing more money in the long-term to rectify than it would have to hire a professional translator in the first place.

The key to a customer getting the translation they want is to investigate exactly what they need the translation for. If it’s a few words, or an informal email, a machine translation will probably suffice. If it’s an internal newsletter, someone who is bilingual might be relied on – although it’s worth having what they produce checked over by a professional. The secret is to have a clear idea of the original text, what it is about, what it is being used for and who it is aimed at. If clients weigh all of these issues up before they look for a translator, they should end up with the translation they want. More importantly, it will be something they can rely on.

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