Life as it is: the freelance translator… without Google Translate

For almost three years now, I have been attending one or more networking events every month and, very often, the first thing that comes to the minds of entrepreneurs when they find out that I am a translator is Google Translate.

But nothing is farther from the truth. To be honest, I have never used Google Translate, even though I translate some 3,000 words, i.e. about 10 pages a day, ranging from general texts to topics I am not familiar with, specialised manuals, technical data sheets, or websites.

Still, I can very well imagine that you, as a layperson may think: “I’ll do a quick translation with Google Translate and I’ll be able to proceed.” Unfortunately, the result you get often makes no sense. And in the case of a professional document, of course that’s something you need like a hole in the head.

But now I hear you thinking: “How is it then that, as a professional translator, you are able to find the meaning/translation of difficult terms or unknown phrases? And no, I’m not a walking dictionary. Nor can I work as a guide after translating a tourist brochure for the Euroregion or Carinthia, or documentation for a museum about the Great War.

But, how do I find the terminology I need? A number of channels can be used for that purpose, but the main one is — how could it be otherwise — the Internet. Thanks to the advent of the Internet, the translator’s life has become far more comfortable. Now there are several multilingual databases, including IATE (*) and EUR-LEX.

But there is more. Translation software is an indispensable tool for the specialised translator. Unlike Google Translate, such a tool helps translators who often deal with the same topics in their work. That’s because this specialised software for translators — also know as Computer Aided Translation Tool or CAT tool — stores all previous translations in a ‘translation memory’, allowing the translator to retrieve terminology faster.

In addition, existing bilingual or multilingual reference material supplied by customers can also be imported into the software. You don’t have to keep looking for that terminology, since the program — just like Google Translate — suggests possible translations. The big difference is that these translations are produced by specialists, not by algorithms.

Such a program helps the translator only up to a point. Ultimately, it is up to the translator to decide whether the suggested term can also be used in the relevant context. And rightly so. In my opinion, automatic translations can never match the quality of a translator’s input. Translating is not about converting words. It involves understanding the message to convey it in such a way that your reader readily grasps its meaning. And by ‘readily’ I mean without suspecting that the text he or she is reading is a translation.

This is the kind of work only humans can do, as it requires thinking, brainstorming, a feel for nuances, the right interpretation, and — only in the last stage — the translation of words.

Translation is a continuous learning process. Language never stands still, be it Dutch or a foreign language. You might think that this is a bit vague. I’ll give you a few examples of things I have learnt recently:

- New words: burkini, cloud computing

- Language evolutions: “anorak” is correctly used in UK English to describe a parka (US) or a socially-impaired obsessive, “me and John” and ‘self-depreciating‘ still isn’t.

- Difference between Belgium and the Netherlands: In the Netherlands, one will describe a distance as ‘op een steenworp van’ [a stone’s throw away from] while in Belgium as ‘op een boogscheut van’ [literally, a “bow’s shot away from”].

- Special language trivia: in French ‘taï chi’ is spelt with a dieresis, but in English, Dutch or German this Chinese word has no accent.

Try translating them in Google Translate and you will see that the program does not know what to do. Likewise, there are many other points that are — and remain — a stumbling block for automatic translation software. I will not claim that they will not continue to improve in the future, but I have yet to find a translation software capable of translating correctly the French word ‘candidature’ as used in this sentence: “XXX vous permet également de diffuser votre candidature à des agents immobiliers partenaires que vous sélectionnez en fonction de leur zone géographique.”

*InterActive Terminology for Europe

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Els Peleman
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