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Difficulties of the translator job Difficulties of the translator job
by Joseph Gatt
2020-08-20 08:59:03
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A list of difficulties that you could encounter as a translator, in no particular order.

-Finding a job. Most companies will hire translators based on ethnicity rather than on the grasp of both (or all three) languages. That is they will hire Chinese-Americans as Mandarin-Chinese translators rather than hire other ethnicities who can work with both languages. Or Hispanics to be Spanish-English translators rather than people of other ethnicities.

lang01_400_01-Problem is most employers will rely exclusively on ethnic criteria when hiring translators. Some ethnic Chinese can be terrible translators when an African-American who might have a much better grasp at Mandarin Chinese and English for example.

-What skills should I look at when I hire translators? These are the skills that I would look at: native-level grasp of both languages, and impeccable reading comprehension and writing skills in both languages, along with a high degree of honesty and integrity.

-Translator problem 1: the original source. The English language tends to be a straightforward language where use of euphemisms is rare in formal circumstances (but they exist!).

-However, many languages use euphemisms. Example: if a document in Arabic reads “meeting at the Bir-Khadem district and contract will be signed at the Oued-Romane district” the meeting will probably take place in some other district. Bir-Khadem is a euphemism for “getting work done” and Oued Romane is a euphemism for “huge amounts of money.”

-Other example: in many countries, “I hold a degree in accounting” is a euphemism for “I want to get paid on time” or “I want to get paid in advance” depending on the context.

-Hidden messages. Sometimes the text might be rather dull, but the choice of wording could carry another message that is hard to translate. For example, if Koreans or the Chinese use Korean or Chinese words that contain the sound “joo” a lot in it, they really mean “Jew” as in money and what not. If a Korean or Chinese letter contains the sound “sa” or “shee” a lot it could be hinting at “breaking up” or “ending the contract” because sa or shee actually means “death” even though the sound is found in many words. How do you translate that?

-Cultural hints. I once had to translate a letter in Arabic which claimed that “Mr. Shebreg” would come for a visit. In Arabic “Shebreg” refers to a kitsch, sentimental, overly romantic man who does not know how to court or date women. Basically a man emotionally overwhelmed when in love with a woman. How do you translate that?

-The original document is in prose. With all the terrorist attacks and economic uncertainties around the world, many documents that have to be translated are write in prose or literary style when they should really be written in plain style. So this is when commercial letters or diplomatic notes become poems and use an overly indirect tone, which is often very hard to translate.

-Misunderstandings. In Korean, it is common to start letters by commenting on the weather. So one Korean started his letter with “it's raining in the Spring, which announces a great harvest” (bom-pi-ga ssal-pi-da in Korean). Now the problem is the French guy reading this did not understand that this was not a random weather greeting, but a request for generous bribes.

-References to popular culture. Choi Jin-Sil is a Korean actress who committed suicide in 2008. Her husband then committed suicide in 2013. And there was a series of suicides among people she worked with, including around 4 of her and her husband's collaborators. But Choi Jin-Sil is a rather common Korean name. So if that name gets used in the letter, something could be hinted at. How do you translate that?

-Other important note: symbolic action. I often get asked to translate documents, when what my boss is merely trying to do is hint that the guys writing the letter or document have no idea what they're talking about. So when you translate a document that is full of misunderstandings and false information, how do you proceed?

-Poorly written source documents. I've lost count of the number of times I had to translate “drafts” and incomplete and poorly written documents. Originally, I used to think that the purpose of the translation was meant for me to translate the document and then fix it and embellish it, but a lot of times that wasn't even the case.

-Job description of translators. Two huge enemies for translators: tight deadlines, and outside-the-job-description tasks. Some companies expect translators to translate 100 pages or more a day, or want a 200 page document translated by the next day.

-Outside-the-job-description tasks. At this one company, I was hired as a technical writer (meaning I was supposed to draft contracts and technical documents). Then I was a translator. But then I was also a technical writer. Then I was also an interpreter. Then I was also a marketing assistant. Then I was also an assistant negotiator. Then I stopped showing up for work. (Between you and me, the main reason I quit that job was because they called me “assistant” when I was really the “boss.” Second reason was that they all went out for a drink and did not invite me to join).

-Finally, translation is not homework, it's professional work. Some companies like the grade their translators, that is the boss will look at your translation, correct it, then sit you down like a puppy, and shower you with feedback like you're an 8th grade student. What I tell these bosses is if they want to collaborate and work together to come up with a good translation, fine. If they want to show me they're my boss, I'll go marry myself another boss.

-Final note: relationship between the translator and the reader of the translation. As a translator, when you hand the document to the reader (s) of the document, do you include written notes? Do you include oral notes? Do you lecture the reader on some difficulties, misunderstandings, possible hints, or complications in the original document? Or do you just hand the translation in with no context or translator's notes?

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