Translation Myths

Top Myths About Translation

a) If you’re very good this year, Santa Claus will bring you a new car.
b) If you kiss a frog, he will turn into Brad Pitt.
c) If you send a translator a fifty-page document tonight, you can have the translation back by tomorrow.

If you answered “true” to the third statement, it’s time for a reality check. Below is a list of the most common myths about translation. Have you fallen victim to any of these misconceptions?

Myth # 1: “I don’t need to pay for translations — I can get free ones online.”
Reality: Machine translations and human translations are different, and should not be used for the same purposes.

A human translator understands the meaning of a document and tries to communicate that meaning effectively in another language. A machine translator does not have a brain and cannot understand anything.
What a machine translator does is replace words and phrases in one language with words or phrases in another. However, there is often more than one possible translation for a word (think of the word “rock,” which can refer either to a mineral or a type of music), and there is always more than one way to express an idea. A machine cannot make these choices the way a human would. The machine doesn’t know what it’s talking about!

As a result, machine translators often make mistakes, and machine translations often sound awkward or even ridiculous.

When is it okay to get a free online translation? When you just want to look up a single word, or to get a general understanding of something written in a foreign language. For example, if you are trying to navigate a foreign language website, a machine translator can help you find your way around.

Myth # 2: “I studied Spanish in school, so I can translate our company website to Spanish.”
Reality: Speaking languages is not the same as being able to translate them. And even a professional translator should generally only translate into his or her native language.

Translation is more than just replacing words. A translator needs to be able to transfer meaning from one language to another in a way that sounds natural in the new language (the “target language”). Since different languages express ideas in different ways, this is more challenging than it may sound. It is a special skill which professional translators learn through training and experience. For important translations, such as the translation of a company website, it is therefore safer to go to a professional.

Part of a translator’s job is writing. The translator is actually creating a new text in the target language, the final language of the translation. If your translation is from English to Spanish, the translator should be a native speaker of Spanish, not English, since that is the language in which he or she will be writing. People can almost never write in a foreign language exactly the way a native speaker would. A native speaker would know the difference.

Myth # 3: “It just makes sense to choose the translation agency that asks for the lowest price.”

Reality: A translation agency that charges very low prices has to keep its costs correspondingly low. That is likely to mean that they are working with less professional translators and that they are taking short-cuts on quality control.

When quality matters, going for a cheap solution can end up costing you more in the long-run.

Myth # 4: “Fifty pages in 24 hours: no problem.”

Reality: Translation takes time. The amount of time varies depending on the specific text, so it is important to discuss timing with your translation partner before making any assumptions.

Machine translators, which input words in one language and output translations in another, can translate translate almost instantly. The work of a human translator, however, is considerably more complicated. This work requires careful reading of the original text to avoid missing any levels of meaning. In many cases, it requires terminology research. And the translator has to write an effective, fluent text in the translation’s target language.

Before asking for fifty pages overnight, think about how long it took you to write the original and remember that the translator needs enough time to write it again in another language.

Bottom Line
Keep in mind the truth behind these myths, and avoid falling into the temptations of wishful thinking when planning your translation. While it’s pleasant to dream, you’re likely to get better results with your translation project if you go in with a realistic understanding of what’s involved.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: