FAQ for Translators

Ever since I bacame a translator, I get asked a lot of about it, be it by friends or strangers. Here are the most common questions I get and my answers. I’d love to hear your answers, as well as other questions you get.

Q: Are you a translator? I thought computer did everything these days.

A: There’s no doubt that computer-generated translation can be very impressive, but it depends on the langauage pair and subject. Machine translation can be useful when you want to translate huge text volumes very quickly, or when you only need the general meaning. Some translators and editors now edit maching translations instead of translating (we call this “post-editing”), but the results are usually so bad that they’d rather translate the text from scratch.

Each language requires and provides different kind of information. For instance, when translating from English into Hebrew, the translator has to figure out if the subject is masculine or feminine. When translating from Japanese, sometimes the translator will struggle to figure out if it’s singular or plural, or if the verb is in first, second or third person. Sometimes you have to preserve the vagueness of the source. It seems to me that it will take a long time for maching translation to be able to make such decisions, that require knowledge beyond the translation itself. And that’s without even mentioning word plays or allusions.

Q: So you’re an interpreter?

A: No, I’m a translator. Translation is done in writing, while interpreting is oral. Interpreting can be simultaneous, so the interpreter speaks at the same time as the speaker, or consecutive, so the speaker pauses after each point and the interpreter interprets them.

Personally, I work somewhere in between – Typed simultaneous lecture translation. I type in real time the translation of the speaker, and it’s projected on a nearby screen, like subtitles.

Q: Do you have to learn translation?

A: It depends. In Israel, where I work, there is no oficial requirement for an academic background in translation, and there are many wonderful translators working without being trained. Other countries might have different requirements, either to work as translators or to get certified. (Feel free to comment about the situation in your country!)

Either way, there are many advantages to studying translation: taking your first steps in a safe environment, learning about translation theories and trying out different genres and fields. Translation Studies are also great for networking with both your fellow students and professors.

Q: My friends needs to translate a document into French. Should I give her your number?

A: Although I translate from French, I don’t translate into it. Try translating something into English or any other language you speak that isn’t your mother tongue – it’s much harder and the quality of your translation is probably not that great. It’s best for a translator to translate only into their mother tongue ot to languages they feel they can properly translate into (not all texts, of course, but that’s for the next question). Professional translators know their boundaries and keep them.

Q: My friend needs a translation about intestinal problems in chickens. Should I give her your e-mail?

A: Translators can only translate texts about fields they know about, as they need to be familiar with the termilnology and produce a text that sounds professionals even to mavens. Since I don’t know anything about intestinal problems in chickens (true story!), I can’t help your friend. However, I can try to help her find a translator that does know something about it.

Q: Why are subtitles and movie titles translated so badly:

A: This may only be relevant to Israel, but I suspect other countries have these issues as well, for the same reasons.

Regarding subtitles: the rates for subtitling are extremely low, so the quality of the translations is imparied. Also, we all make mistakes, and since the source and the target are appear together, it’s easier to spot mistakes.

As for movie titles: The movie distributors pick them out, and they have their own considerations, so sometimes the local movie title has nothing to do with the original.