B y: Inger Larsen
I did a little poll recently. It showed that the failure rate for translators passing professional test translations is about 70%. These are qualified translators, many of them with quite a lot of experience. Why is the failure rate so high? What makes a good translator?
The poll was fairly informal, just a few phone calls to translation managers working with large translation companies. Some said 60%, others said it was as high as 80%. But I come across the same issue practically every day in my work and I think that the 70% rate is fairly accurate.
Although I started out as a translator about 25 years ago, for the last 12 years I have been running my own recruitment company for the translation industry. At one point we were recruiting for a project assistant position. One of the applicants had a degree in linguistics, an MA in translation and some relevant work experience as an in-house translator and project assistant. I asked for her references. The first I contacted was her linguistics course tutor. Glowing references – one of the best linguistic talents they had had for a long time. So far, so good. Then I contacted her most recent employer. Nice girl, but she hadn’t worked out as a translator. She just hadn’t grasped either the language part or the technical part of the job, her referee said. So it’s possible to be a brilliant linguist but a poor translator. Most of us probably know that already. But what does it take?
What makes a good translator?
At a conference I was talking about this great puzzle. I said that not only you do need to have perfect written command of your target language, you also need to have an excellent understanding of the written source language. In addition, you need an in-depth understanding of the subject-matter – or the ability to learn quickly. It’s quite an intellectual challenge to be a good technical translator – you’ve got to be able to master both languages and technology.
In the audience there was a lady from the EU. She had lots of experience from working not just as a translator herself, but also from managing translators. She added that to become a good translator, you need to practice, practice, practice. She also told the story about how she had become a translator, as she had started out by studying something else completely. Some of the lectures were in other languages. She took notes in her mother-tongue and her fellow students discovered that she was really good at capturing what was said in one language, in writing in another. So they all asked her for her notes afterwards. That’s how she discovered that she had “the knack”. Adding my own experience, you also need someone good to give you feedback on your translations. And you need to take their advice on board. That may be the biggest hurdle for many.
Types of errors
But quality can also be a very subjective matter. I come across that when we recruit for in-house translator positions. Recently we recruited for Spanish as one of the target languages. We posted the vacancy widely and got no less than 120 applicants in for the one job. They needed at least two years’ relevant experience to be considered for the job, so that left about 15. In the end we brought this down to 8 that we presented to the client we were recruiting for. All wonderful candidates who came really well recommended and had great references about their translation skills. Our client chose six to send translation test pieces to. Only two passed. The feedback for those that failed was that there were errors in the translation, wrong terminology and – the biggest hurdle of all – the style was not good. One of the translators that failed had over ten years’ experience. When I broke the bad news to him, he actually already knew why they had failed him, because he got the same sort of feedback quite often. In his case, the feedback was anglicized terminology and poor style. He said that his main client prefers this terminology and a short and concise style and so does he. We have very similar experiences when we recruit for Italian translators. So now, whenever possible, we try to get a style guide from the companies we recruit for. That way, at least, our candidates have a better starting point. This is not to say that all of them will follow it. Some translators think that their own style is preferable to their client’s preferred style. Maybe it is, maybe not, but in those cases they are likely to fail the test.
Most large translation companies and internal translation departments also apply weighted quality metrics when they review the test translations. And they may use different metrics for different types of texts.
When I was – briefly – a member of the SAE J2450 committee to define quality metrics for the automotive industry, the group consisted of both translation buyers and vendors. It soon became clear that there needed to be different quality requirements for different types of documentation. Owner’s handbooks need to read beautifully as well as being technically correct. People actually read these – some even take them to bed with them, sad as it may sound. Workshop/repair manuals need to be technically correct, but style is not important as long as it’s understandable. Most service technicians will only look up the procedure they are interested in and they only need to understand the steps they need to do. The expression “fit for purpose” came up again and again. So the metrics began to take shape from this underlying logic. A mistranslation that causes the reader to misunderstand or carry out an operation incorrectly, is a serious mistake. A fail. A stylistic error in a Workshop manual is a minor error, but a more serious error in an Owner’s handbook.
As a nice by-product, this exercise also increased the buyers’ understanding of why the translations are priced differently for different types of manuals…
I am not a great fan of academics whose main task in life seems to be to impress other academics rather than educate translators for success in real life. It’s no good saying that “we know there is a problem, so someone needs to research it and write a paper about it”. Some universities are very good at understanding what they need to teach translators so that they can become good, employable translators. They include practical sessions in using translation tools and cover many relevant technical subjects. One major problem is often finding the right staff to teach the translators. People with practical, recent experience who are also good teachers.
The way forward
Translators need to accept that it takes a lot of practice under good supervision to become a good translator. Also, accept that there are different styles and ways of translating, depending on the client and the readers of the text. Follow the norm given. If there are no guidelines, research well. And use a good spell-checker. No, I am not trying to be funny. According to one translation manager, spelling mistakes are one of the most common mistakes and if eliminated, it would probably reduce the failure rate by several percent!
In a difficult economic climate, the good news is that many translation buyers agree that there is still a shortage of good translators out there. So if you’re not one already, you can become one, or at least a better one.