Why being bilingual does not mean that you can translate

Just a few days ago, I read somewhere the following statement: “speaking two languages doesn’t make you a translator any more than having ten fingers makes you a pianist”…and this is a great truth.

Since I joined this translation industry, I’ve heard people here and there suggesting that they could translate because they could speak more than one language. We’ve also had to reject candidates who wanted to join our team because they were bilingual but without any translation education and/or experience.

But, why did we reject these people? Isn’t bilingualism enough to become a translator? The answer is that bilingualism is a “must” to become a translator, but it is not “enough” to translate.  Although there are certain tasks that a bilingual person could do without much effort, the truth is that the skills of a good translator go beyond being bilingual:

  1. A professional translator is a linguistic expert both in the source and target languages. Apart from speaking the language, they master the grammatical and punctuation rules and are aware of different style guides. They are trained writers able to produce texts that read well and sound fluent and natural in the target language.
  2. Professional translators are aware of cultural variations. They have an in-depth cultural knowledge of both the source and target cultures. They understand the target culture and society and they are aware of local expressions and nuances which becomes very important to ensure full usability of the target text.
  3. Translators are trained researchers. They create glossaries and databases and dedicate time to keep up to date with new word usage and vocabulary as languages are dynamic and in constant evolution.
  4. They also have a strong subject matter expertise which is critical. Professional translators are usually specialized in one or several subject maters depending on their education and experience. This means that not all professional translators, despite having translation training and experience, will work on a legal or medical text. They need to have the necessary expertise to be aware of the terminology and style of a given industry.
  5. Translators are expert users of translation tools which helps them do the job faster and more efficiently, improving consistency and quality.

Translation is a profession that takes a long time to master. Professional translators usually have a university degree in Translation, Applied Linguistics, Philology or any other degree combined with translation training or post-graduate studies and many years of experience as well.

So, if you are bilingual or have a bilingual employee, even though you might be tempted to do your translations in-house, you should not. Often the results are not the desired having negative consequences on your company’s image and reputation or keeping your products out of a foreign market.

Owning a car does not make you a good driver, does it? Let us help you. Rely on professionals for your translation needs.

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