What is a translator?

A translator conveys written material - manuals, brochures, patents, specifications, etc. - from one language into another. In some quarters, there is still some confusion about the distinction translator/interpreter. The interpreter is the one who transfers the spoken word, e.g. speeches, presentations, etc. The two activities are related, of course, but they call for two completely different sets of skills.

According to a widespread misunderstanding, the work of a translator is simply a matter of typing a text in another language or looking up words in a dictionary.

Linguistic competence

In fact, the translator's function is that of a language expert with a well-stocked fund of background knowledge in the various fields in which he has come to specialize during his career. And, of course, the translator also has to bring along a good deal of linquistic experience. This is true not only of the language he is translating from (the source language), in which he has to have a sound grasp of all the nuances, but equally so of the language he is translating into (the target language), in which he must be able to express himself with considerable differentiation and at a high stylistic level. In addition, the general expectation nowadays is that the text as it appears in the target language ought to read like an original and should not sound "translated". So the translation must have the same impact on the target-language reader as the original text had on the source-language reader.

The crucial preconditions for this linguistic competence are the translator's interest in his special fields and his enthusiasm for the languages he works in and with.

Technical competence

Many casual observers tend to overlook the technical knowledge that a professional translator has to have on tap. The translator is by definition a language expert, but he will also be unable to avoid acquiring and continuously building up a wealth of knowledge in his areas of technical expertise. Most translators specialize in one or more special fields: law, finance, medicine, computers, technology, etc. Each of these fields has its own special terminology and its own specific styles. The translator must work hard to acquire the knowledge he needs to produce reliable translations of documents in his fields. And he must remain flexible and receptive enough to familiarize himself quickly with new or related themes and subjects.

Two more points should be mentioned here. First of all, although it is true that the translator must have a certain amount of background knowledge to be able to operate in his special fields, this does not mean, of course, that a translator working in the medical field must be a practising physician or that his colleague doing work in the computer field has to be a fully qualified programer. On the other hand, comprehensive general knowledge, above-average background information and lots of experience are indispensable.

Ways and means

In the second place, the translator must have access to the resources that are essential for his work, like dictionaries, glossaries and other tools. This also includes translator mailing lists, colleagues or acquaintances operating in various fields and written materials like trade journals and specialized periodicals. Also, the translator must be an expert in Internet searches; he has to know where and how he can find reference material and dependable sources. So he has to invest time and money in maintaining and extending his sources and resources.

In other words, the professional translator is caught up in an ongoing learning process. But freelance translators is something else as well: they are business persons. So they have to be able to handle bills, accounts and taxes, select and buy the right technical equipment and head their own marketing department. These ”side-lines”, too, call for heavy outlays in the way of time, money, effort and personal commitment.

The upshot is that the translator is both an allround language expert and - to a limited extent - a technical expert as well. His knowledge of the fields in which he offers his services must go beyond what the average person knows or what can be gathered from a newspaper or periodical, and what students can learn in their first two semesters at university. Most of all, however, the translator is a language expert, whose special skill consists in transferring information and ideas from one language into another. And this alone adds up to a complete mission statement.

The various points discussed above are also valuable decisions aids. They are based in part on ”Translation as a Profession” by Roger Chriss.
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