Why translation is not that simple (in case you didn’t know)

When I was a kid I used to dream of speaking a lot of different languages and this dream followed me for many years. Having English as a second language, I now come to realise that it does not matter how many years have passed or how many courses I did – I’ve been learning English since I was fifteen -, English is not my mother tongue, and there is always something new to learn and improve. In Translation, this is even more clear, because it is not enough to know the basics or to simply know how to communicate. I have surprises everyday. For that reason, when I face or hear someone saying “I know/speak several languages” I think to myself “Do you?!“. Nowadays, my dreams changed: I am still in love with languages and I will not stop on the English one, but I will try hard to be the best and specialised myself in the few languages that I know.

It is the same about translating. Everybody that knows other language(s) think they can be a translator. A curriculum with a bunch a languages proficiency is beautiful, and don’t get me wrong, I still appreciate people with CVS like this. Nevertheless, when you have a few experience in this field, you start to understand why not everybody can be a translator. In order to be a translator, it requires a deeper knowledge of both target and source languages. This should be obvious, but in the practise it is not for most people. I made a list of the most important points of why translation is not that simple:

Cultural gap:

When I am translating from Brazilian Portuguese, for instance, even tough there is something that I don’t know how to translate or that there is no translation at all, I understand what that term or sentence means. Not only because it is my mother tongue, but because it is the culture I was inserted in. I know how an university operates, for example, so when I see terms like “aproveitamento de estudos” or “vestibular”, I understand their meaning. The other way around, the same does not happen to me when I am translating from Spanish. Depending on what I am facing, I don’t even know where to look for an explanation or possible translation. The same happens to my colleagues whose speak Portuguese but are not citizens. When I explain the meaning of something for them, it is of big help. If you think about it, even living in the country that speaks the language you are learning are not enough. It requires patience and time to have the complete “fluency” package.

Language structure:

Now: how the language behaves. In English, for example, the adjective comes before the noun, and in Portuguese this is the other way around. So, basically, when you have something as this ”Aposentadoria por tempo de contribuição”, in English every word are backwards ”Contribution time based pension”. Obviously, this rule does not work like that every time, so it is not as simple as ”just translate it backwards”. Plus, among adjectives, nouns, objectives, verbs, etc., there are many other examples showing that one language behaves different then the other. So, translation is not just about typing words and sentences, but understanding the structure of the language, something that requires not only studying grammar, but also practise in writing. Again, things that just patience and time will give to you. 

Technical translation

New Translators will work with any kind of document that the clients give to them. And there is nothing wrong with this, because that’s the only way to acquire experience, learn and understand which field interests you more, as it is in any other profession. However, there are documents that are completely technical. And you come to realise that doesn’t matter how many years you studied or how good you are in that language, you are trapped in the technical terms. And for this, just the translation knowledge is not enough, it’s necessary to go beyond that and end up studying something and specialising yourself in a field that has nothing to do with translation, as medicine or law, for example. Again, as in any other job, you need to improve yourself little by little over the years.

Computer skills

I like reading and writing, can I be a Translator? Well, not exactly. To have computer skills is another important requirement. Not just the proficiency of simple tools as Word and Adobe Reader, but also knowledge of  CAT tools (Computer-assisted translation). Some companies will work with one type of CAT tool, so even tough you are used to one of them, for example, you may need to learn how to use the other.  For CAT tools types click here. The good news is that you will acquire computer skills with practise, so, basically, while you work. For most people, this is not a problem, but for others, computers can be a bit of a dilemma. In that case, internships and online volunteering can help. The important is to start somehow.

Many cultures, one language 


This one may not apply to everybody, but it certainly applies to me. There are different countries that speak Portuguese, for example, such as Brazil, Portugal and Angola. For a geographical reason, this Portuguese can change from  one country to the other, not just in the vocabulary, but also in the grammar. Even tough I may be translating from Portuguese into English, I sometimes face a whole sentence that I simply do not understand the meaning, and it is my mother tongue! So I need to do my research in order to understand the content of the text.  For that reason, a professional translation should always be from English into the mother tongue of your country and vice versa. Only this way you can assure to provide a quality job.

As any other profession, Translation requires you to have some specific skills and specialise yourself over the years. Nothing new on that! Choose what you want to do and start your experience now!


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