When it comes to professional services, the need for credentials, experience, and expertise is self-explanatory for some. We hire electricians and plumbers and consult doctors and engineers because we instinctually know such skills and knowledge are hard to acquire, and that amateurish attempts could lead to dire consequences.
How does this translate to translation? It's a worthwhile question to explore because while everyone in the industry is shouting from the rooftops about the need to hire true professionals, the world continues to be plagued by cringeworthy, poorly done translations. What makes translation hard? What kind of skills are hard to come by? What are we talking about when we talk about quality translation?
As a translator and a reviewer of other linguists' work, I will share three issues that stand out to me as challenges in creating quality translation. I hope this overview gives you a better picture of the intricacies of translation and the unique set of skills that need to exist concurrently to produce top-notch work.
Challenge #1: "That's not what it means."
Reading comprehension is the first hurdle of translation. It's trickier than one might think. In my experience as a proofreader, what causes the most trouble is not the hard words or specialized terms—these can be researched and looked up. It's those seemingly easy ones that slip one's radar and get in the way of proper understanding.
There's what I call a "first adopter problem" in language learning. When we first learn a language, we learn the most prominent meaning of a word. It takes continuous effort to advance one's proficiency and not take the simplest words or phrases for granted. For example, one can do something "furiously" without being angry. "Effectively” can also mean "in effect," which is very different from the sense in "working effectively." And my favorite example: "I don't know." This expression is rarely translated correctly when it’s used to signal doubt or disagreement.
A related issue is a lack of language immersion. It's alarming when a translator makes their first encounter with a commonly used expression in a project, instead of having previously acquired it in real life. You know "I can't believe you people" means something ridiculous is happening because that's where you've heard this phrase. But for a translator who has not previously heard of this expression, they would misunderstand it to mean not being able to trust someone. When one's language skill hasn't matured to a true native level, a word-for-word comprehension leads to incorrect rendition.
A translator's instinct is also vital. One can never know everything, but one must have an inner alarm system sensitive to contextual and logical incongruities. If a sentence reads funny, that should trigger a warning in the translator to ponder and investigate. Staying vigilant and never making assumptions is an essential quality for translators.
Challenge #2: "We don't say it that way."
Even if we know precisely what the text is trying to say, we could run up to the challenge of not knowing the equivalent, both linguistically and culturally. You see, translators are not a copy machine, and we don't—and shouldn't—convert texts into another language verbatim. We transmit ideas, emotions, and messages, spoken and unspoken. "I told you so" does not just indicate something was previously said, but also suggests you should've heeded the advice. Being able to perceive such nuances is what differentiates a human translator from a robot.
That's why the defining characteristic of a skilled translator is their ability to move beyond literal equivalence and convey the spirit of the message. To that end, having the right words, grammar, and syntax to aptly describe whatever scenario the text calls for is another challenge. And since the evolution of society and culture is never linear or parallel, a concept that exists in one language could have no equivalent in another. A translator must know how to address such vacuums thoughtfully and strategically.
I mentioned earlier the importance of constantly improving the language we translate from for precise comprehension. The same goes for the language we translate into. Language changes constantly with new expressions and slang terms popping up, and keeping abreast of the latest linguistic development is how we make sure our writing stays vibrant, current, and relevant.
Another issue is specialized language. If a text is written for an expert, you need to hire someone with both the language skills and technical know-how. Or think of it this way: would you be equally comfortable with writing about politics, life sciences, philosophy, pharmaceutical trials, and patents? It takes tremendous research and subject-matter familiarity to craft something that reads "right" to the intended target audience.
Challenge #3: "This doesn't read well."
And speaking of reading "right," the crucial writing skill required of a translator goes beyond knowing precise phrasing, style, and terminology. It shouldn't surprise anyone that being a native speaker doesn't automatically mean being a good writer. Excellent word sense, language sensibilities, and reader empathy take decades to develop and mature, and they are the arcane "it" factors that ultimately create the delightful, pleasurable reading experience we want.
Mastering a foreign language, having up-to-date linguistic, cultural and subject-matter expertise, and writing well are three core skills that need to be present all at the same time to produce excellent translation—and that's hard to do! We haven't even gotten into communication, time management, and organizational skills that are also vital to a project's success. So think twice before you feed your text into a machine and pray for a miracle. Invest in people who actually take care of your text, because it's worth it, and your brand and your audience will thank you.
Looking for an English-Chinese translator you can rely on?
Hi, I'm Sijin. I'm an English-Chinese translator certified by the American Translators Association with seven years of professional experience. Whether you're an NGO that wants to amplify your message, a business that wants to communicate with your audience effectively, an individual with official document translation needs, or a content creator looking to have your work translated and subtitled, I would love to hear from you. I'm serious about my craft, and I have the track record of producing excellent work and receiving high regards from my colleagues to back it up. Get in touch today, and I look forward to taking care of your text.