Translating is often seen as an intuitive profession – you know two languages well, so what’s the big deal with simply transferring one into the other? It’s a very big deal. Not only on a linguistic, but on a personal and interpersonal level as well.

“You are studying English? But why, you already know the language, don’t you?” This was one of the most frequent comments on my studies of English language and literature. It seems to be a widespread thought that studying a language means merely to acquire its vocabulary and grammar and then to speak and write it. Well, it’s not. There are such a variety of concepts, contexts, and social and historical backgrounds to be considered in order to really understand a language and its structure. It’s not only linguistic forms, it’s the whole mindset and the way we structure our thinking that build the language.

According to that, translation is, or should be, a complex process requiring a lot of consideration and background knowledge. There are many who call themselves translators just because they know two languages. They completed the B2-level of a language in a language school and take on “easy texts” that seemingly anyone can translate. The truth is there are no easy texts. Even the easiest text requires a certain level of understanding of the context, idioms, and metaphors in the target language and the mindset of the audience. Otherwise, in the launderette we will get advice such as “Please don’t die here” or we will admire the “cream milk with coconut humans” description in the menu of a restaurant.

Not only is the prior knowledge required for translation underestimated, but also the translator’s responsibility. Of course, there is a gradation in the weight of responsibility – a mistake in a restaurant’s menu probably won’t hurt anyone (except if someone has an allergy and didn’t recognize the ingredient).  A mistake in legal translation on the other hand can have far-reaching consequences. For example, a candidate applying for a job position in a foreign country who had his title translated in the wrong way might be turned down just because of a “little mistake”. One wrongly placed word can completely change the implications of a contract. Not to mention wrongly copied numbers in official documents might double a selling amount, raise the age of an applicant, or reduce grade averages.

One deterrent example of the consequences of a wrong translation is the case of Dolet, a translator in the 16th century. He added only three words in his translation of Plato’s text that were not present in the original – “rien du tout” which meant that after death there was “absolutely nothing”. This questioned the immortality of the soul and he received the death penalty for heresy. Of course, this is something that could not happen today, but still, the translator can lose a huge amount of money and reputation if a mistake in the translation has serious consequences for the client. And of course, it is also a matter of conscience and a peaceful sleep.

It has been proven that during translation, translators often take on the role of a third conversational partner instead of merely conveying the message. It has been pointed out by researchers that in official hearings, where absolute accuracy is of crucial importance, translators happen to leave out words that they don’t deem important or slightly change the tone of the message. In such contexts it is utterly important that the translator completely refrains from adding or removing parts of the text based solely on his/her own judgment. Similarly for example, conversations in the field of social service are influenced and messages are distorted by a translator that follows a principle of liberty in his translation. The translator is again obliged to convey every single word and thought in a precise manner and to comply with his function as a neutral medium.

In the business world, a flawed translation might lead to a miscommunication between companies and their clients that could hinder further collaboration and customer loyalty. In this case, the company will be at a loss. A well-known example is the Parker Pen advert, which was supposed to mean “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you”.  The translation said “You will not get pregnant while losing ink in your pocket”.  Not exactly a catchy and attractive slogan.

The reason why untrained translators are so successful lies partly in the misjudgment of clients. Like some translators, they are not aware of the consequences a bad translation might have for their business. They are also unaware that a person knowing both languages might not be able to translate a text correctly, including all connotations and implications, tone, and meaning.

Another aspect of the required depth and sensitivity in translation are interpersonal relationships. Whether translating a book or an article, contact with the author and an understanding of his/her personality plays a crucial role in the translation process. It is important to be aware of the author’s personal mindset as well in order to grasp all the tiny nuances of the delivered messages. If the communication between author and translator becomes very intense, it can even happen that bonds are created that carry far beyond the translation process. A translator from Equatorial Guinea, for example, became the close confidante to his author, when the author himself was in danger.

Considering all the pitfalls and consequences translation bears, it seems like a pretty serious issue. After all, language is not just “language”.  Extensive knowledge is necessary in order to avoid getting “lost in translation”.


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