Sunday, October 28, 2007

No Surprises: Once Again, People Prove Not to Understand Translation

This article suggests that a county council in England is using language students to do translations as a way of increasing business for companies in their region. What is upsetting is that the Norfolk County Council seems to believe that just because some students have done well in foreign language courses in high school, they are able to translate to that language or write documents directly in the language. Clearly, this is yet another case of people not understanding what translation is or what skills are involved.

In the article, a communications manager is quoted as saying, “Students need to understand that having good, relevant language skills can add value to their CV, and are just as important as their technical and other academic skills. It’s all too easy for those skills to lie dormant and only be brought out when ordering a meal on holiday!”

Of course this is true, but having language skills alone is certainly not enough to make a successful translator, as
has been mentioned many times on this blog before.

I am sure there are some talented students involved in this project and maybe one day some of them will even become translators. In the meantime, however, I hope businesses will hire experienced, expert translators if they are serious about realizing their “true business potential” and increasing their business abroad.


Andrew Shields said...

People are constantly surprised when I tell them I do not translate into German. But if you want to publish translations, you should translate into your native language, not a learned language -- unless you have been specially trained to translate into a particular foreign language.

I have come across lots of disgraceful examples of people misunderstanding translation, but this one really takes the cake.

B.J. Epstein said...

Yes, it is a very common misconception that translators can translate both to and from their source languages (of course, some do, but generally only the "true" bilinguals or in special circumstances). But even people who believe that generally have some idea that perhaps it makes sense to hire an expert rather than to use a student. On the other hand, maybe I am just fooling myself into believing that, since I certainly have heard from many people who think that translators are expensive and that it works just as well as, say, getting your friend's cousin's cleaning-lady to help you out with the translation.

Best wishes,

Eric Dickens said...

Shields & Epstein:

Yep, the Brits (BJ can speak for the Yanks) are monumentally ignorant about languages. I preach this wherever I can, using irony, bluntness, conciliatory suggestions, whatever. Few outsiders realise that a translator's lot is not a happy one.

I've gone through it all for years: a) no understanding of the difference between interpreting (one-way or two-way) and translating; b) "But don't you translate into...?".

I have ceased to write wholly sophisticated replies, tend nowadays to utter my opinions with little circumlocution. Because when you are dealing with people who know nothing about languages, subtlety is a waste of time.

The more (about) languages you do know, the more you realise that there are very few practical bilinguals (as opposed to boastful wannabees), and that my ignorant, if well-meaning, British compatriots are blundering into a field where they are out of their depth, using translation as another "good idea" to increase sales abroad.

B.J. Epstein said...

Like you, Eric, I try to educate people where possible, but at some point it's just too much and/or it doesn't seem to be having an effect. So what more can we do to help people learn what translation is and what it means to really know a language?

Best wishes,