Dispelling the 7 Myths of Translation

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Myth #1: Anybody who is bilingual or multilingual can translate well.

The quality of translation depends on both the translator’s knowledge of the subject matter and his mastery of the source and target language. A good translator is a knowledgeable, resourceful and meticulous person who never ceases to learn and is fluent in at least a language pair.


Myth #2: Native speakers of the target language are better translators.

Whether a translator is a native speaker is immaterial. As long as he has achieved the level of a native speaker in the target language, he is in a very good position to write fluently in that language. Fulfilling this criterion is necessary but insufficient. A thorough understanding of the source language is equally imperative for the cultural and linguistic nuances to be captured in the target language.  


Myth #3: Machine translation is already very advanced. There is little need for human translators.

This is almost equivalent to saying that computers can replace humans. Machine translation does have its advantages; speed is the first on the list as information is quickly pulled from a huge data pool to generate an output in seconds. Machine translation is useful if the aim of the translation is to get the gist by focusing on keywords. However, machines cannot reconcile linguistic idiosyncrasies, interpret contexts and determine cultural appropriateness at a level comparable to that of the human brain. At least not for now. With a truck load of inaccuracies in grammar and word choice, an unpolished translation that is fresh out of the oven of a machine is not publishable unless the publisher’s reputation is inconsequential. Considering the pros and cons, it is recommended that machine and human translation be used in synergy.


Myth #4: It is wrong to translate literally, whether it is word for word or sentence for sentence.

There are many ways of putting across the same idea. Similarly, there are also different types of translation such as free, semantic and literal translation. To choose the most appropriate types (usually a mix) of translation, the translator must take into account many factors, including the purpose of the translation (e.g. target audience, adherence to the source text and intended outcome) and the context of the words (e.g. underlying meaning, tone and nuance).


There are times when literal translation conveys the meaning aptly while sounding natural in the target language. On other occasions, dissecting fixed idiomatic expressions into individual words will spell disaster. As a rule of thumb, the translated text must convey the intended message of the source text and be understood by the reader. This complicated topic will be discussed in future blog posts so stay tuned!


Myth #5: Translators should follow the source text strictly by not omitting or adding any words in the translated text.

From a language standpoint, the translator might need to add words to clarify meaning or omit words that are untranslatable. The type of translation also plays a part in determining the degree of deviation from the source text. Transcreation (i.e. adaption of a message from the source language to the target language) gives the translator more freedom to reconstruct the target text, making it suitable for readers of the target language. This is more applicable to advertising and other types of creative writing.  


Myth #6: Translation can be cheap, fast and good.

What is too good to be true is usually too good to be true. The key is in finding a balance among these parameters.   


Myth #7: A good translator can produce a perfect piece of translation.

No matter how talented a translator is, he is still prone to human errors. ‘Translationese’ (awkward expressions in the target language due to the influence of the source language) and bias are commonly-encountered problems in human translation. These can be greatly reduced with good screening procedures that involve editing and proofreading by different professional individuals. Hence it is advisable to have a team rather than an individual to work on the translation.   


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