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What do translators actually do?

Technical Translation

When people ask me what I do for a living and I tell them I am a translator, they are normally very impressed. I presume it is because the translation profession is highly respected; exudes values of multiculturalism, friendship, bringing countries and peoples together; and because as translators tend to be fairly introverted folk, you don’t often happen upon our rare species (especially in linguaphobic Great Britain).

Upon closer examination, however, it soon becomes clear that the person is not actually impressed by the fact that I am a translator; but rather because they think I am an interpreter. A job that – for the record – scares the pants off me and has me in sweats whenever I dare to consider what it must be like: Imagine having to simultaneously listen to what is being said in one language, translate it into another language in your head, utter the translated version at the appropriate point, all the while ensuring that you are not missing any of the original words being spoken. I struggle to remember what my daughter asked me two minutes ago; there is no way I could listen to what she is saying, translate it into a different language and relay it back to her when she next pauses for breath. Although I wish I could. The look on her face would be a picture!

Say what?

So we have established that interpreters are mindblowingly impressive. But it does beg the question: What do translators do? I mean, if they don’t do what most people seem to think they do, then what on earth do these rare beasts get up to?

Well, allow me to explain.

Whilst interpreting deals with the spoken word; translation is all about the written language. We take texts written in one language, work our multilingual magic on them, and produce expertly crafted texts in a different language entirely. It is a beautiful thing.

 

A little digression, if I may…

I have a very vivid memory of a maths lesson where we were shown a machine (or a rectangular box) with an input and an output. You put a number in one end, the machine did its magic and you got a different number out the other end.

The Amazing Mathematical Machine

I see translators as being a little like this machine. Less rectangular and machine-like obviously, and naturally full of finesse, but our role is the same: We take words in one language, work our magic, and produce words in another language.

 

So how does translation work?

In the modern, online world, the translation industry is blessed with tools and software and other wonderful things that make receiving texts, translating them and delivering them a doddle compared to the pre-internet world.

To be perfectly honest, I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like to be a translator in a world before email. Everything had to be sent by post. The idea of a next-day translation represented pure lunacy. These days, some companies offer a two-hour turnaround for translations. Imagine.

The actual art of translating has changed too. In the pre-digital age, everything was handwritten, and translations were done using huge bilingual dictionaries.

Nowadays translations are almost always done on computers. Some translators just use word processors; whilst others use more sophisticated translation software with translation memories that help to ensure that the same phrases and terms are used consistently throughout a project.

Online dictionaries, encyclopaedias, translation forums and the internet as a whole offer a wealth of support for translators. It means that it is possible (although not recommended) to translate a text in a field that you know nothing about – by using Wikipedia and other online resources, you can easily read up on the topic and find the correct vocabulary in a relatively short space of time. Even considering a translation on an unfamiliar topic would have been true folly in the pre-digital age.

 

The LEaF approach

Here at LEaF we work on laptops and use a piece of software called SDL Trados. We receive source texts by email, create projects and translation memories in SDL Trados to ensure consistent terminology and style, and then translate the texts with the help of online dictionaries and other resources as required.

SDL Trados

Once we are satisfied that our English translations perfectly mirror the German source text in terms of meaning and style, we email them to the client.

It is a simple process and one that ensures that we can provide the best possible translation.

 

Natural talent

The key pre-requisite for all of this is, of course, natural talent as a translator. Translators need to be proficient in at least two languages: the source language, which is generally a learned language; and the target language, which should be the translator’s native tongue (see The Native Speaker Principle for more on this).

In addition to language proficiency, the translator needs to be able to write, and write well. Whilst creating a translation is obviously different to crafting a text from scratch – you have a very clear template to follow – you still need to be able to convey a specific style in the target language and, of course, you need a solid grasp of grammar.

Many translators fall into the profession as a result of their ability to speak more than one language. But the really good translators are the ones who are passionate about writing too. They are the ones who have not only honed their translation skills, but are also able to produce texts that sing rather than bore.

And that is where we come in:

We love writing and we love translating. Interpreting scares the bejeebies out of us. But that is fine. It is not what we do. We are writers. And we love it.

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About LEaF
LEaF Translations is a small, bespoke translation company offering German to English translations. We specialise in website localisation, marketing translations, advertising & PR and translations for the tourist industry.

Find out more about what we stand for on our Core Values page or contact us now for an enquiry.

About the Author

Lucy

Lucy Pembayun is a German to English translator with over ten years of professional translation experience and the founder of LEaF Translations.
She graduated with an MA(Hons) in German from Edinburgh University before being awarded a DAAD scholarship to study for a post-graduate Masters in Germany. She has lived in Bamberg, Fulda and Berlin, and now resides in York, UK, with her husband and two young children.