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What is it that you actually do? Or: What’s challenging about translating?

May, 2017
Written by Ellen Göppl, translation by Alex Smith

Let’s face it, basically everyone can speak English. More and more students are spending at least one semester abroad and even toddlers are now learning foreign languages. So what on earth do we need professional translators for? The answer is simple: to separate the sense from the nonsense.

Both customers and friends usually only have a vague idea of how I spend my working day as a translator. Their ideas range from running texts through Google Translate to replacing individual words with equivalents in another language (“You don’t have to understand, you just have to translate!”). Some even think that a translator’s brain is crammed with every piece of terminology known to man.

None of this is true. We never work with Google Translate. And when I say never, I really do mean NEVER! Of course, it would be great to let Google do all the work, make a few minor tweaks here and there and then charge customers loads of money for the privilege. But the truth is that even messages that seem relatively easy are often turned into complete gibberish by machine translation. For those who have not yet indulged in the fun, here is a good example from our website: “Die Bedürfnisse unserer Kunden über eine angefragte Leistung hinaus wahrzunehmen und individuelle Lösungen zu finden, ist uns ein besonderes Anliegen.” Believe it or not, this is a fairly straightforward sentence for German speakers. No play on words, no technical terms. Yet we could probably say goodbye to our customers for good if we were to display the following English translation:

“The needs of our customers perceive about a requested power beyond and to find individual solutions , is of special concern to us .”

The added space before the full stop is particularly strange, but perhaps easily explained: I suspect that the program actually has a certain degree of intelligence and has noticed that the sentence is not complete. Now imagine having to edit a 30-page text of this quality. No thank you! It would be quicker to translate it myself – editing a bad translation often takes more time than translating a text from scratch. (This also applies to low-quality human translations, in other words translations produced by actual people).

Anyway, enough about the charms of machine translation; what is it that human translators, usually university graduates, do all day then? Nowadays, professional translators tend to work with translation memory tools. These software tools do not actually translate, but find any identical or similar passages that I have already translated, which not only makes my job easier, but also ensures that the customer receives a highly consistent text. This also applies to terminology (technical terms) that can be saved in the CAT tool. The software still needs to be told what to save and how to save it, so I still have to do some thinking. The program therefore doesn’t do the work for me, but it does help. This brings me to the topic of technical terms. I, too, used to think that I could just look up unknown words in a dictionary and add them to the text in the desired language. And as looking up vocabulary is fairly time-consuming, it’s best to learn it all off by heart, like I used to do at school. For non-specialists, however, it is hard to even begin to imagine how many technical terms CANNOT be found in a technical dictionary, or just how many terms shown in the dictionary are out of date or uncommon in a particular context. Of course, specialist dictionaries can be very useful – especially electronic ones, which display the desired word in no time at all – but I actually spend far more time researching terms on the internet. Translating inevitably requires me to know the topic at hand inside out. This makes me a bit of an expert on all kinds of subject areas without ever being able to call myself a doctor, lawyer or engineer. I too, however, have to work very carefully and understand the context behind the topic in question before attempting to translate a text. For grammatical reasons alone, the word order in a translated sentence will usually differ from the original. It is therefore only once I have understood the context that I can write an idiomatic text without losing any of the meaning.

Although Google Translate is the translator’s sworn enemy, I will admit that I don’t know what I would do without Google Search. I google oodles of information, specialist terms and expressions. I have been known to use Google to compare images of screws, reactors and ship components to check whether my German term truly corresponded to the English, French or Italian word and depicted the same “thing”. The dynamic nature of the web means that adverts on different websites are tailored to frequently searched expressions. Now, I don’t really mind seeing recommendations for decorative cosmetics – or even solar batteries for that matter – but being asked the question “are you suffering from a stoma?” after doing research for a medical text does make me feel a little misunderstood!

Of course, it doesn’t take a degree in translation to look up words in a dictionary, research context on Google and compose texts. But I could also cement one brick on top of the other without a bricklaying qualification. Just as bricklayers know their materials, tools and tricks of the trade better than anyone else, translators know the fastest way to research, how to convey the intended register and style, what to discuss with the customer beforehand, how to optimise layout, use CAT tools, get to grips with new technical subjects and when to request a second revision. And our hard work pays off – at the end of the day, properly built walls are not only more aesthetically pleasing, but also more stable.

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