Debunking the Most Common Translation Myths

Translation myths versus facts on a balancing scaleTranslation, interpretation, and localization services have become one of the most important industries in the global marketplace. What was once considered to be a small, niche industry is now valued at close to $50 billion worldwide and serves as one of the key driving forces of global economic integration. However, despite the industry’s importance, it may come as a surprise that there are still many misconceptions when it comes to foreign language translation. Therefore, this week’s blog is devoted to debunking the most common translation myths.

1. Any bilingual person can translate. If you’re a small business with a limited budget and you need to translate your marketing materials into Spanish, you may think that asking one of your Spanish-speaking employees to do the translations for you is a great way to save some money. However, translation is a specialized skill that requires a great deal of study and training, not just bilingual skills. Where that bilingual employee may be useful is in assisting the professional translator(s) in providing context or explanations for your corporate jargon.

2. “Back Translation” is a good way to measure the quality of a translation. A translation involves translating from Language 1 (L1) into Language 2 (L2). Back translation is sometimes used as a means to verify the quality of a translation by then translating L2 back into L1. While back translations may be necessary to fulfill regulatory requirements in certain industries, it is generally not seen as a particularly effective tool for validating translation quality.

For example, many clients may expect that the back translation should match the source document word-for-word. However, different translators have different styles. Not to mention, any given term or phrase can be translated correctly in many different ways. Therefore, if you are going to use back translation, it is recommended to focus only on “differences that matter.”

3. Machine translation is good enough. Translations can be expensive. One way that some clients try to save money is by using Google Translate or other free machine translation tools. Unfortunately, while machine translation has improved by leaps and bounds over the past two decades, the technology still comes up short in many ways.

When trying to reach a non-English speaking audience, it isn’t worth the risk of accidentally offending someone or provide erroneous information because of a poor machine translation. However, that is not to say that machine translation has no beneficial uses, but you should be informed about when it is appropriate to use.

4. There is only one possible correct translation for a given text. In the Spanish language, the word for “car” can be translated as carro, auto, automóvil, or coche. While carro is more popular in Latin America, coche is more common in Spain. However, either one is correct. Furthermore, Spanish word order is much more flexible than in English. While Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) is the most common word order, it is also possible to leave off the subject entirely or change the word order to emphasize a particular part of a sentence.

This flexibility means that two translators may likely translate a particular sentence differently, with both versions being equally valid, and based on the translator’s individual stylistic preferences. This is why it is also important that if you, as the client, have particular stylistic preferences or glossaries, you should share them with your translation provider.

5. Translation and interpretation mean the same thing. This is one of the most common misconceptions about language services. “Translation” refers to the conversion of a written language into another written language. On the other hand, “interpretation” is the conversion of a spoken language into another spoken language. Therefore, if you are hosting a conference and need someone to convert a Chinese presenter’s speech into English for the audience, you need to hire an interpreter. If, however, you need your company’s employee handbook converted into Vietnamese, you would need a translator.

If you’re new to working with the language services industry, some of the above myths may surprise you. Never to fear, though, because by working with Affordable Language Services, we are here to help answer all of your questions!