People usually become aware of translation when it does not work, as witnessed by the laughably inadequate or nonsensical user instructions or manuals that come with some imported appliances or devices. More generally, the most common contact with translation is through language classes – not the best way to figure what professional translation is about since academic translation and professional translation are like chalk and cheese – or the interpreter’s voice-over on TV (and that seems ridiculously easy) or, nowadays, the instantaneous and free translation service (just click the ‘translate’ button on the Web).
No wonder many people think that translation is “not real work”, that “all you need, to translate, is knowledge of the language and a good dictionary” and that translating simply means changing the words and sentences from one language into another.
Many translation requesters think translations are clearly outrageously overpriced, that most translators are just wet-behind-the-ears language graduates who probably “know nothing about the subject” and that there are now machines and software packages that “do the same thing just as well for a fraction of the cost.” They even “would do it (them)selves if only they had the time”. So why, they wonder, does it take so long? Why is it so expensive? And why do translators insist on asking so many questions?
The translator, on the other hand, knows that good translations are the outcome of a very demanding and ever more complex technical activity. He just cannot understand why the client inevitably finds the translation too expensive, would like it to be finished before the work has even started, has usually forgotten to plan the translation time into the work schedule and always forgotten to budget for it anyway, makes last minute changes to the source document (such changes being usually referred to as improvements’), changes his mind half way through the translation, forgets to give the translator the vital documentation or information needed to carry out the job properly and in time, never has time to talk to the translator or approve the translation, considers translation, at best, as a necessary evil and begrudges having to pay the translator’s bill or fee… to mention just a few of the grievances!
Whatever the reasons for such obviously serious misunderstanding, there is a good case for making sure that everyone has a better understanding of the nature, challenges and complexity of the whole process of translating.
Professional translation has nothing to do with the academic exercise of ‘translation’ as practised in traditional language courses; the latter is a purely linguistic exercise, generally applied to literary texts, and without any implication of publication. Nor does it have any relation to “translating for pleasure”, which is translation carried out in relaxed circumstances, just ‘for fun’ If professional translators get satisfaction from their work, they certainly do not translate for the sheer pleasure of translating. They mean business.
Translators maybe called upon to translate just about anything. Any text, message, fragment of a message or code element may need to be translated.
A comprehensive list of materials that are commonly translated would include software programs, video games, software on-line help systems, insurance contracts, extradition proceedings, film sub-titles, songs, film dialogues, all kinds of soundtracks, drug dosage instructions, obituaries, mail catalogues, mobile phone instructions, marketing certificate applications, sales contracts, health certificates, user manuals (millions of them), parts lists, commercial statistics, registry office certificates, educational qualifications and certificates, confidential diplomatic memos, advertising leaflets, adverts, magazine and newspaper articles, alarm system documentation, customer complaints, the faxed minutes of a meeting before the next session starts, poems, novels, short stories, biographies, bills of lading and customs forms, post card titles, medical files, extradition requests, technical memos, annual reports, letters to the shareholders, DNA analysis reports, machine user instructions, patents, and many more.