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Common Mistakes Made by Amateur Translators and How to Avoid Them

If you are a company that has a global presence or works with people and organizations of different nationalities, you will need a translator sooner or later. Whether it’s document translation, verbal translation, or casual communication, it’s extremely important that the translation is accurate.

Generally, companies don’t have translators on staff and will need to outsource. Often, large firms will try to save money by using their own staff for translations. Sometimes a firm will be tempted to hire outside consultant translators who are not certified or properly trained. With very few exceptions, both of these practices can be huge mistakes.

Six Common Mistakes Amateur Translators Make

  • They try to translate everything.

Technical documents have a language of their own. Even in English, documents such as scientific publications, manuals, or legal briefs can be unintelligible unless the person reading them is familiar with that particular topic. Each academic area has its own jargon and abbreviations. Unless the hired translator knows these, they will not be able to translate the document accurately.

  • They tend to translate documents word for word.

Because of that, they create a literal translation that lacks the spirit of the original. This can lead to awkward documentation, and may also cause problems when someone actually tries to use the translated document. For example, if a law firm is involved in the litigation of biotech intellectual property, the translator needs to be able to understand not only the science in the patents but the legal phrasing and what that means. Missing even one key phrase or word can mean millions of dollars lost on the part of the client!

  • They often use words and phrases that seem to have a similar meaning to the original when in fact they don’t.

In one language, one word may have connotations that it doesn’t have in another. Good translation doesn’t approximate meaning but delivers it. When that is not possible through a simple word for word translation, it rewords whole sentences and even paragraphs to achieve it.

  • They don’t proofread their work, leading to grammatical errors and typos.

While it’s easy for us to let pass grammatical errors in speech, errors in technical documents are difficult to overlook and sometimes impossible to understand. A company whose content contains grammatical errors looks unprofessional and alienates customers. Typos are just as bad.

  • They are less efficient.

Amateur translators may not be native speakers of the language (or of both languages!). Also, they may not do translations on a regular basis. As a result, they tend to be less efficient than trained, certified translators, having a lower output and being less productive.

  • They translate even what can’t be translated.

As a result, you may end up with a very strange translation. Professional translators know that each language has its strengths and limitations, and know when they have to rewrite rather than just translate.

Avoiding these crucial mistakes becomes easier if you work only with professional translators with a proven track record.

Tips for Amateur Translators

With a bit of effort, amateur translators can improve the quality of their work. They can improve their accuracy and translation speed, and deliver better translations faster. If you do translation work yourself from time to time, here’s how to get better results:

  • If you are given a deadline that you know you are not able to meet, either turn down the translating job or negotiate more time in which to do it.

In patent law and other disciplines, you may find that the deadlines are hard (e.g. the firm has a court date and needs documents by a particular date). In all cases, be honest with your potential employer. Let them know how much time you need to translate the text. If you are being pressured you will not do a good job!

  • Do not be afraid to ask a lot of questions if necessary.

Sometimes amateur translators do not ask questions because they feel their employer will view them as incompetent. Employers in all fields have a big secret: they love when you ask questions because they know they hired someone who is interested in what they are working on and who will not try to use guesswork.

  • If a job is not in your wheelhouse, do not accept it.

In other words, if you are not at least somewhat of an expert on the topic and do not have a working understanding of the language, turn the job down. In some jobs, you have to learn as you go. Translation is not one of those jobs. Translation, especially of technical documents, requires the translator to already be knowledgeable in the topic area. It does not do you or your employer any good if you decide you want a ‘challenge’ and try to learn the topic as you go.

  • If the job is not confidential, ask to see the document before you accept the job.

This will ensure that you know what you are getting into. It should also put your employer at ease about your abilities or limitations.

  • If you are not clear on the voice or jargon of the document, consult someone who can guide you.

In the end, being an amateur translator does not have to mean that you do a substandard job. It can be a stepping stone to a lucrative career as a professional certified translator or it can be an excellent source of extra money. All you have to do is build a reputation as a careful, knowledgeable, and conscientious translator.