To Study, or Not to Study: That Is the Question

Being bilingual, or trilingual, as many people are here in Quebec, does not qualify a person to translate. However, a high percentage of the people who are offering translation services on the Web never set foot in college, at least not to study translation. Some people may argue that an engineer or a doctor will translate engineering or medicine texts much better than a translator, and they may be right if we only consider terminology. Of course an engineer will probably know a technical word right away because he’s used to employing that word day in and day out, but a good translator will know how to go get the right word as well, eventually producing the same result, but with a much higher overall quality.

The right terminology can be acquired through research, by talking to the client or the client’s SME (subject matter expert), or by turning to professionals in the field. However, an engineer who knows the right terms may have forgotten grammar rules and doesn’t necessarily know how to solve translation problems, how to use translation techniques, or how much he can move away from the original to make sure the text keeps its sense and still sounds natural.

When potential clients call us for the revision of a translation done by a friend or a relative, I always ask to see the text before quoting, and I can tell sometimes clients don’t understand why. Arguments ranging from, “My sister lived three years in South America” to, “I took some English courses in college” (therefore, the translation should be OK) are common, and that misconception is probably the reason why the translation profession is not always valued as it should be.

A colleague of mine always says, “I can add, but that doesn’t make me an accountant.” And if you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Would you go to a “doctor” who doesn’t have a medical degree? Or to a “lawyer” who didn’t pass the bar? So what makes some people think that a person who is bilingual but doesn’t have any academic training can do a good job at translating?

What about exceptions? You may ask, and it’s an excellent point. I’m not trying to say that a person without a translation degree is doomed to produce poor translations. Oftentimes writers, journalists, literature graduates, etc. make excellent translators. Some others are just talented, but there are not that many of those. In the same way, a translation graduate may not necessarily be a good professional. The aphorism, “Lo que natura non da, Salamanca non presta” (what nature doesn’t give, Salamanca, one of the oldest universities in the world, can’t provide) puts it very eloquently. You can go to university and still be incompetent at your job. But it is also true that school gives you a knowledge base from which to start building a professional career.

Therefore, I think it’s important that clients and the general public understand that the four years a translator spends in college, plus the many courses he or she might take after graduation, as well as the years and years of professional practice, count for something.

After almost 20 years of translation practice, I can say that the best translators I know hold a translation degree and are passionate about their work. I do know some talented people who didn’t study in the field and are still excellent, but as I said before, they are scarce. In my opinion, the winning recipe when it comes to translation is a combination of academic training and practice.

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