Can the Man Next Door Translate My Contract?

Posted on Posted in Interesting translaton topics, Things you never think of, Translation quality

A common misconception among many who require a translation is that anybody who speaks two languages would be capable of doing it.

“I know a guy from Prague; I think he might be able to translate our non-disclosure agreement into Czech!”

Well, ask yourself this question:

If you were given a legal contract between to governmental entities laying the framework for a clean energy agreement pertaining to the production and distribution of bio-fuels within the private sector, would you be able to translate it? Unless you deal with legal texts and have knowledge of engineering, I doubt it.

A translator not only has to have knowledge of the language, but also knowledge in the field itself or at least be capable of viably researching on the topic so that the translation is rendered correctly and, in the case of contracts, that everything is clear and no detail has been left out. This leads me to my next questions. Are legal translators lawyers? Are medical translators doctors?  For the most part, the answer is no. So, how do they manage to translate such texts?!?

For the most part, translators either attain training or gain experience in the field  or even undertake apprenticeships with other master translators in order to translate the highly specialized content they are sometimes faced with. When you study translation, you deal with a broad spectrum of different fields, but just because you went to college to be a translator does not mean you are automatically a good one. Experience is paramount.

As is the case in any trade, people don’t usually start out being perfect in what they do. In the case of a newbie translator or even a graduate translator, they still have to gain experience. If starting out working for a more experienced translator to check over their work is not an option, most translators start out translating for agencies doing very easy translation or at cheap agencies doing really difficult translations. Agencies are pretty tough to work for because they normally check the translation in great detail, right down to the very last word. Agencies pride themselves on efficient processes to deliver the best translations possible. (If the office is good that is.)  This is one of the advantages of companies who procure translation services from a translation office / agency. Please see my blog post on “The Advantages of Working with a Translation Agency” for more details on this.

Let’s get back to the translator. He/she starts working for the agency and usually starts translating very basic texts. After each translation, they receive feedback on their work and in most cases, the revised translation. This is an iterative process of trial and error leading to the translator continuously getting better and better, both in the field of specialization and understanding the source language. By researching similar documents in the target language, the translator also improves his/her own abilities in his/her native tongue.

After this step, if the translator shows promise and talent, the agency may give a more difficult translation in a specialized field, providing a terminology list and a translation memory. Translation memories contain all previous translations in the field done for a certain client. (See post on Translation Memory at this blog for more info.) While translating and analyzing previous translations, combined with research, the translator is in fact learning a great deal in the field. It is not enough to just “translate” a text. A translator has to understand it and in fact gain quite a deep understanding of the content.

Aside from the linguistic aspect of being a translator, there are many “translation” aspects that also have to be considered, such as being able to accurately analyze texts for any issues in the translation. Issues can include terminology, layout, alignment with previous translations, existing terminology, and aspects regarding localization (e.g. properly conveying certain ideas, taking cultural aspects into account, currency, weights and measures and even images).

Furthermore, a good translator also has to be good with CAT tools, otherwise, it is not possible to render a translation that would be useful to a company. CAT tools ensure the consistency of terminology and aligns current translations with past ones to makes sure that all written documentation within a company is uniform (e.g. to make sure that the text on the company website is the same text in the company brochure.) Of course, there are also master translators that can do with without CAT tools, but it is not the norm as it is incredibly difficult to keep texts consistent, especially if the projects span across several months and several hundreds of pages. It is the job of the translator to make sure that the word translated on page 2 is the same translation on page 195 for example. That is really difficult.

To truly become a great translator, you need to have years of experience. It is not just something that “the guy next door” can get done for you, especially if it is his first translation. If a translation is to be done well, go to a professional translator that does it for a living.

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