I have studied English at university and have lived, studied and worked in an English-speaking environment for a long time. When I say I work at a translation agency, people often assume that I’m a translator. I understand, speak and write English fluently, but I don’t do translations: I don’t consider my language and writing skills, technical knowledge or experience sufficient for translating. I don’t think I would pass Delingua’s translation test.
Many Delingua’s customers have their own professional in-house translators and it is always a pleasure to work with them when localising the company’s materials. Delingua also has customer companies where a product or marketing manager, for instance, translates texts alongside their actual work duties. Needless to say, although they have not received translator training or have experience of working as translators, they are usually the best experts in their field and in their own texts. This often results in excellently translated texts, which the customer can still send to Delingua for proofreading or editing. In such cases, we indeed encourage the customer to do the translations themselves if it is a natural part of the person’s job description and sufficient time has been reserved for it in the company’s internal process. For these companies, having the translations proofread and edited by a native speaker of the target language is a sensible and natural way to produce materials in a foreign language.
However, there are also situations in which companies assume that a bilingual employee or an employee who has lived abroad for a long time or is otherwise fluent in a foreign language can produce all the necessary translations alongside their other work duties equally well as a professional translator. What is the difference between a person with good language skills and a professional translator? Are good language skills a guarantee of a fluent translation?
1. Texts are rarely written in standard language
The majority of corporate texts that need to be translated are more demanding in structure than texts written in standard language. Texts may range from entire software applications to legal documents or marketing texts, for instance. Each of these text types requires a specific kind of competence. Most translators specialise in certain text types. A professional translator who is skilled at translating legal documents, requiring a high level of accuracy in relation to the source text, rarely is equally good at very creative marketing texts.
Although many proficient language users are perfectly capable of watching foreign-language TV programmes, using a foreign language when working or even following a political debate or understanding the content of a foreign-language contract, it is not at all certain that this skill level is sufficient for producing a translation that conveys the tone and content of the original text correctly in a foreign language.
2. Not just a speaker but a language professional
A translation should preferably be as if it had been written in the target language in the first place. This is a skill that translators learn during their training and constantly improve at work. It is indeed almost impossible to achieve this skill without knowing the grammar thoroughly and mastering an extensive range of vocabulary in the target language. A translator’s professional competence also includes the knowledge of different expressions and nuances of the target language. However, the most important skill of a translator is excellent language and writing skills, which is something that not everyone who speaks two languages excellently has. For instance, I can speak both Finnish and English perfectly well but even this blog post will undergo editing by a language professional to make it easier for you to read.
3. Speed and technical expertise
Often, the translation speed of people who do translations alongside their own work duties is much slower than that of professional translators. Not only is a professional translator much faster, thanks to their skills and experience, than a random person translating texts every now and then, but they also use a variety of tools that are rarely available to a random translator. Translators working at a translation agency can also tap into the expertise of the other personnel.
At a translation agency, the translator does not have to worry about file formats or other such things as these steps needed for making the text ready for translation are carried out by employees specialised in translation project management. Texts to be translated can be in various file formats, such as DTP files and different software localisation resource files. In addition, texts can be retrieved directly from publishing platforms, such as online stores or websites, using different kinds of automation tools.
A translator’s most important tools include translation memory software. A translation memory is not the same thing as machine translation: a translation memory is a customer-specific database of human translations, used by translators. The most commonly used translation memory software also incorporates term bases that facilitate terminology management and consistency. As the translation memory grows, the translation speed for texts that repeat might double or even triple, while the consistency and quality of translations improve.
Even professional translators rarely cope without tools. In addition to tools-related competence, they are professionals not only in translation but also in information search and the use of various electronic dictionaries and directories.
4. Native-level competence
The key principle of translation is that a translator always translates from a foreign language into their native language. In language combinations where there are enough translators in the world who understand the source language well and are able to translate it into their native language, translators are almost always native speakers of the target language. It is always easier and more natural to produce text in one’s native language than in a foreign language.
However, in the case of small languages such as Finnish, the problem often is that there are not enough professional translators who are target language native speakers for all the texts to be translated into foreign languages. As a result, when Finnish is the source language of the text to be translated, the translator is often non-native. However, these translators are professionals whose knowledge of the target language, translation skills and experience ensure that their translations are very close to the level of the text produced by a native speaker.
At a professional translation agency, the translations of non-native translators are checked by a language specialist who is a native speaker of the target language. This is especially important when the translation has a large native readership and the publication is used for sales or marketing purposes, for instance. So, to avoid blunders, have your translations checked by a professional!