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Intrinsic Qualities of a Professional Translator

By Alessandra Muzzi

A personality trait that many people notice in me is that I don't talk much, but I am a good listener. Actually, I feel more at ease with the written wor(l)d: first of all I like reading, then writing and listening, and last of all speaking. That is why I never considered a career as an interpreter. I am a translator, and I feel that is what I was born to be. And what I worked hard to become.

When thinking about what language professionals do, most people readily visualize interpreters as persons who talk, and translators as persons who write. That is correct as far as it concerns the "deliverables" they produce, but fails to capture an essential part of their effort. First and foremost, an interpreter listens, and a translator reads – and both work out a meaning from what they hear/read. They should be wary of assumptions – the extracted meaning must be based on the source content and its specific context, not on preconceived ideas that may introduce a bias or even blatant errors. They should act as "blank whiteboards" for someone else's message, and then lend their voices or writing skills to convey that message.

I will now focus specifically on a professional translator's skills, although much of what follows may also apply to interpreters.
Of course, the foundation of a translator's skills is linguistic. A language professional is supposed to understand the nuances of language. When I say 'language' here, I am not referring to a specific language. Language abilities precede the particular incarnation of those abilities in a given culture. To understand the meaning of the sentence "an image is worth a thousand words", you do not need a specific in-depth knowledge of English (Italian has a very similar expression, "un'immagine vale più di mille parole"; so has French, "une image vaut mille mots", and likely several other languages). You rather need that kind of linguistic sensitivity that makes you realize that this does not refer to an image containing a thousand words, nor does it mean that "it takes a thousand words to describe an image". Rather, it is a way of stressing the effectiveness of an image compared to mere words (be they a hundred, a thousand, or a million – the exact number of words has little relevance here).

In many cases, mere linguistic skills are not enough in order to understand and translate a text appropriately. Context must be taken into account, and subject-matter-specific knowledge becomes important. Let us consider this example:
Add a Birth Year field by using the Year function on the Birth Date field
This was wrongly translated as:
Add a Birth Year field by using the Year function that is available in the Birth Date field
Now, if you know just a little programming, you are aware that a function is usually not available in a database field, but is made available either by the programming/query language out of the box, or by an added function library. And you know that you can apply a function to a field (or rather to the value contained in that field). So, if you have this kind of knowledge, you cannot stumble on this sentence. But even if you do not have it, a closer perusal of the sentence structure should be enough to at least raise some doubts: Why "on the Birth Date field" and not "in the Birth Date field"? And if you have a doubt when translating, you should not just live with it, but should explore ways to dispel it, be it through research or by asking your client.

Here is another example of a sentence whose translation was gotten wrong due to poor technical knowledge:
It is best practice that the dataset fits in RAM
translated as
It is best practice to use a dataset whose dimensions are not greater than the RAM's
The error here is more subtle. Saying that the dataset dimensions must not be greater than the RAM's dimensions is not accurate, because that is a necessary conditions, but not a sufficient one. One must assume that at any given moment the full RAM cannot be available to a single process, because it is being used concurrently by several processes, among which system processes. Therefore, the dataset managed by this process must fit in the available RAM (a fraction of the full RAM).

The need for an adequate mastery of the subject matter leads to another important prerequisite for a good translator: an eclectic curiosity, a genuine interest in several subjects, that make you want to dive under the surface and explore different realms of knowledge. You do not need to become an expert in everything, just understand enough of the text you are dealing with to render it correctly and clearly in your target language. But you should certainly care about the text and its meaning and purpose. You should read the text as a whole, not as a haphazard assembly of disconnected sentences. This approach is not facilitated by modern CAT technologies, which break down the text in chunks and tempt clients not to pay for exact matches and repetitions. But a good, conscientious translator, who cares about quality, should anyway use all resources at their disposal (e.g. a PDF version of the whole original text) to maintain a holistic view of the content. The risk of not doing so is exemplified in the following case:
Data about the company's sites is also taken from the Excel file Client_Site.xls but from the Site worksheet, which is the second worksheet in the file.
This was wrongly translated as:
Data about the company's sites is taken – among other Excel files – also from the Excel file Client_Site.xls, specifically from the Site worksheet, which is the second worksheet in the file.
The position of "also" in English sentences is often misleading. Yet, in this sentence, the phrase "but from the Site worksheet" should have rang a bell: Why say "but"? Have they been talking about another sheet in the same file?
This is actually the case. In the previous section, they said: "You get data about the clients from the Excel file Client_Site.xls and the Client worksheet in the DataStore directory." Therefore the correct meaning of the above sentence is:
Also the data about the company's sites (like the data about the company's clients) is taken from the same Excel file, Client_Site.xls, but (not from the Client worksheet but) from the Site worksheet, which is the second worksheet in the file.

Hard to take account of all these details? Certainly, but this is what sets a good translator apart. And what limits the usefulness of machine translation for them. You cannot save much time through machine translation, when you have to check all the text and context anyway to make sure your translation makes sense as a whole. And clients of translation services cannot expect professional, quality translation prices to lower substantially through advances in translation technology.

P.S. All examples in this article are real-life ones, albeit slightly altered to prevent a too easy recognizability. Wrong translations were produced by colleagues working as professional translators. Should you recognize yourself in one of the examples, don't take it personally though: we are all human and can make mistakes, me included of course. And I have learned a lot through the revision of my colleagues' work.

March 21st, 2017