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Frequently Asked Questions About Translation

Castle Associates wants to be the place you turn to whenever you have a question about language translation. The following is a list of the most common questions we are asked. Just click on the question that interests you and get the answer below. If you have a question that you don’t see answered here, feel free to contact us directly on our contact page.

What is translation?

Translation is the creation of a text in one language that means the same thing (or as close to the same thing as possible) as a text in another language. It is distinguished from interpretation, which is an oral transmission of the meaning of speech from one language to another. For an in-depth look at translation, we suggest you start with the Wikipedia article on translation and go from there. But be sure to come back when you’re done!

Isn’t translation easy if you know both languages?

No, usually not. A person with a passing familiarity with two languages can translate short phrases such as “good morning”, or “where is the post office?,” but even people with a mastery of two languages may find translation very difficult. This is because the more complex a text is (and most texts are more complex than you might think), the more it can contain specialized or technical vocabulary, ambiguity (phrases that can mean more than one thing), references to elements in one culture that don’t exist in another, subtle nuances of meaning, and complex grammatical structures that don’t carry over from one language to the other. Imagine, for example, how hard it would be to explain the details of specialized machinery for manufacturing aluminum cans, or to convey a book like “Huckleberry Finn” into Russian or Japanese, with all its regional dialects, colorful expressions, and references to 19th-century Mississippi River culture. Works such as these are translated all the time, but the process requires a great deal of skill.

What makes a good translator?

A capable translator will have a solid mastery of the source language and a native mastery of the target language. This means that he or she can understand the source text correctly and can write in the target language at or near the level of a professional author.

Capable translators are also well-read, are familiar with many subject areas and stay very well-informed and completely conversant in their areas of specialty. They have excellent research skills and the patience necessary to get to the bottom of knotty translation problems, rather than settle for the easy or obvious solution that may or may not be right. They have learned the grammatical structures of the source and target languages inside-out, in order to make the necessary transformations when a structure used in one language does not have an exact parallel in the other.

First-rate translators also have a spark of creativity that they can draw upon when they need it. The best translation in a given instance may be the least obvious: one that requires a complete re-casting of the original expression in a way that communicates to the reader with clarity and power. It’s not unusual for the best translators to create translations that are clearer than the originals.

Translators may come from different educational backgrounds. Some are trained in technical specialties which they complement with solid language skills, while others have degrees in languages, humanities, linguistics, or in translation studies. With few exceptions, good translators have university degrees (usually advanced degrees) in fields that directly relate to the kind of translating they do.

What is a “certified” translation?

In the United States, a certified translation is one that the translator himself or herself certifies as accurate by placing a statement to that effect with his or her signature. For example, official documents submitted to the Unites States Immigration and Naturalization Service require only this certification.

In some countries, a certified translation may need to be performed by a professional whose abilities have been certified by an official government body or through professional examination. There is no such certification in the United States. The closest to it is certification by the American Translators Association, the most widely respected (but still unofficial) translator certification body in the United States.

Some official translations may also need to be notarized, but the only purpose of such notarization is to validate the signature of the translator. However, a number of governmental and private bodies require such notarization, and Castle Associates is glad to provide this service.

Are translators licensed like doctors and lawyers?

In most countries of the world, any person may practice the translation profession without government licensing (other than a normal business license) or professional examination. Many countries do have licensing for translators of official or legal documents. Such translators are known as “sworn translators” or an equivalent term.

In the United States, there is no certification equivalent to “sworn translator.” However, interpreters who work in state and federal courts must pass a professional examination and be licensed by the State or Federal government.

Are there different kinds or levels of translation?

Yes, although for most purposes a translation should be a fully finished work that reads as if it had been originally written in the target language. Still, there are legitimate forms of translation that come short of this standard. We would classify translations into the following four levels:

Word-for-word or gloss. This involves substituting a word in the target language for each word in the source language and not changing the grammatical structure or word order. The output is usually very hard to read and understand by itself. A translation of this type is usually used only in scholarly papers where the focus is on the source language and the gloss is provided along with the source as a convenience to the reader.

Automatic. This is a translation generated by a computer program without human intervention. Most such programs attempt to take the translation slightly beyond the word-for-word level. For example, they may conjugate the verbs and make some simple changes in word order. Still, the resulting translations are often unintelligible or even comical. The best use of such a translation would be to get a general idea of what the source text is about, to decide whether you really want to translate it. In our experience, automatic translations are almost useless for real communication purposes, as the effort required to edit them is about the same as that of doing a new translation.

For example, consider the following source Spanish text, taken from an Argentine newspaper:

Lo admitió el subsecretario de Programación Económica, al tiempo que señaló que el aumento de la inflación afecta a los sectores de menores recursos.

The automatic translation from a popular free on-line services comes out as follows:

It admitted the undersecretary to it of Economic Programming, to the time that indicated that the increase of the inflation affects the sectors of smaller resources.

As you can see, this “translation” is barely understandable.

Literal. A literal translation is one in which the basic meaning of the source has been conveyed into the target language, using legitimate target language grammatical structures that are very similar to the source and the direct dictionary equivalents of each word or phrase. Such translations can often communicate meaning well enough to “get the job done,” but are usually annoying and stressful to the reader because the concepts are not conveyed naturally in his or her language. The more complex or subtle the source text, the more likely a literal translation is to be misleading or even unusable.

A literal translation of the previous example would read something like this:

The undersecretary of Economic Programming admitted it, at the time that he indicated that the increase in inflation affects the sectors of least resources.

Finished. In a finished translation (the kind that Castle Associates and other professionals strive to provide), the target text conveys the meaning of the source in language that is fully natural and comfortable to the reader. Where necessary, the translator will switch to different grammatical structures, adapt the writing style, and make careful, studied word and phrase choices to make sure that the message comes across in a way in which it might have been originally expressed by a native of the target language.

A finished translation of the example passage might read something like this:

The Undersecretary of Economic Planning made the admission while also recognizing that the increase in inflation affects the poorest segments of the economy.

What determines translation quality?

A translation should be faithful, transparent, and free of mechanical errors.

A faithful translation accurately conveys the meaning of the source text without distortion. To produce a faithful translation, the translator must have a firm grasp of the source language, including its subtleties and nuances.

A transparent translation is one that reads naturally in the target language. In other words, it doesn’t make the reader work any harder to understand it than would a text originally authored in his native language. To produce a transparent translation, the translator must have the writing ability of a skilled author in the target language.

Mechanical errors are problems such as misspellings and wrong punctuation. A good translation will respect the spelling and punctuation conventions of the target language, which are often different from those of the source language.

How can I make sure to get a good translation?

When the translation is into a language that you can’t read yourself, you can naturally feel uneasy about the quality of what you are getting. The following guidelines may help.

1. Contract a reputable translator or translation company that can refer you to several satisfied clients.

2. Ask for a sample translation. Many translators and companies will be willing to translate a short sample text (about 1 page). You can then have the sample checked by a trusted resource who knows that language.

3. Make sure that the translation process includes review by an editor that is independent of the translator. If you contract a translation company, this should be part of their process. If you hire a freelance translator, you should hire a separate reviewer. In either case, it doesn’t hurt to have yet another revision made, even if it is a random spot check.

4. Develop a long-term relationship with your translation provider. Jumping around from one supplier to another is likely to cause problems with consistency and reliability. Professional translators and translation companies such as Castle Associates will work hard to keep you as a satisfied, long-term client.

How much should translation cost?

We won’t give specific prices, as these are negotiable with each supplier depending on factors such as language pair, experience, and geographical location. What you should keep in mind, however, is that quality translation is a professional endeavor that requires considerable skill. It is not simply a clerical task that can be done by any bilingual person.

Translation is typically billed by the word. When comparing prices, be sure to ask whether the rate is based on the source word count or the translated word count. Both are legitimate bases for billing, but for some languages the difference in word count between source and translation can be considerable, and must be taken into account when comparing.

Also, make sure that you know what is included in the rate. Does it include an independent edit? Is project management extra?

Of course, price will be a major factor in making your choice of a supplier, and most every translator or translation company knows that they must compete on the basis of price. Remember, however, that a very low rate could indicate a supplier that must work too fast, or use less-skilled resources, in order to make a profit.

The globalization of the translation market, as well as the availability of productivity tools, has made translation services more affordable than they have been in a long time. For many languages, today’s prices are typically lower than they were 20 years ago. Still, the old maxim that “you get what you pay for” still applies in most cases.

What about computerized translation?

Linguists and computer scientists have worked since the advent of the digital computer in the late 1940’s to obtain “FAHQT” (fully automatic high-quality translation). Except for a few highly specialized applications, no one has come close to this goal. In the future, more sophisticated linguistic models and greater computer processing power may produce some improvement.

However, for the time being automatic translation, such as can be obtained at free Internet sites, produces only the roughest “indicative” translation, meaning something that gives you a general idea of what the source document is about. Such translations are nearly useless for publication purposes or for clear communication. If automatic translation were a real money-saver, translation companies would be eagerly exploiting this technology in order to be more competitive. The fact that they never, or hardly ever, use automatic translation tools suggests that it will not save money for end users that wish to cut costly steps out of the translation process.

How is the translation industry structured?

The language services industry, like most others, has large, medium, and small players.

Large companies.

A few international translation companies have revenues in the tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars. These companies typically have offices worldwide and offer translation services in all but the most obscure language pairs. They usually have numerous in-house project managers, as well as specialized staff such as software engineers, who specialize in the optimal use of translation productivity tools and localization of client software. The large companies contract most of their translation volume to medium-sized or small companies or freelance translators.

If you have a large, complex, project, especially if it must be translated into many language pairs, you may be considering turning to a large multinational translation company in order to draw upon its extensive resources and project management. However, in many cases aggressive and creative mid-sized or regional companies such as Castle Associatescan handle large projects very capably, often at a lower cost to the client.

Medium-sized or regional companies.

The middle ground in the translation industry is occupied by companies whose revenues may range from several hundred thousand to several million dollars a year. They typically work out of a single office and usually either serve clients in a regional market or accept subcontracts from large translation companies. Some medium-sized companies have a national or international clientele. Castle Associates fits into this category. We serve many clients in the intermountain western region of the United States, as well as some clients throughout the United States and several larger national and international translation companies.

It is not unusual for medium-sized translation companies to contract each other for specialized services, even though they may compete with each other at other times (a practice known as “coopetition”). Most medium-sized companies also outsource translation to smaller companies or freelances, but may also have in-house translators. In either case, the company handles the complex task of organizing and managing the project, assigning optimal resources, and ensuring final quality.

A medium-sized company such as Castle Associates can often handle large, complex projects and is usually very competitive in price with large companies, due to lower overhead. Like a large company, a medium-sized firm will completely handle project management and quality control. You may also want to work with a medium-sized firm if it is close to you geographically and you want frequent personal contact.

Small companies and freelancers.

This is where most of the actual translation work gets done. An individual freelance translator, or a small group of associates, accepts contracts from large or medium-sized companies, or in some cases obtains jobs directly from end clients. Hiring a small company or freelance could be your lowest-cost option, but you may find that you must handle more of the burden of project management and quality control, or that you must hire several providers to handle multiple languages or specialties.

How long should it take to translate a document?

This all depends on how many resources you are willing to put on the job, and whether you are willing to accept certain trade-offs. As a very approximate rule of thumb, we figure that one translator can handle about 3,000 words a day, and an editor about 10,000. If you need the translation faster, you can hire a translation company that will put several translators and editors on the job. However, keep in mind that the more people work on your job, the more difficult it will be for your provider to deal with style and term inconsistencies that could affect the usability of the final product. This is especially the case when a project requires more than one or two editors. The increased difficulty of the task could be reflected in a premium rate.

How do I find a translator or a translation company?

Well, if you’re reading this you have already found one, Castle Associates! You can also find translators and companies in the phone book or by word-of-mouth recommendation. You can also find a vast number of companies on the Internet. In our Links section we provide you with links to extensive translator directories where you can find most of our competitor/colleagues, large and small. But of course, we hope you’ll come back to Castle Associates.

As a client, how can I help the translator?

It’s not always easy for even the most skilled professional to translate your document “in a vacuum.” Especially if your source material is complex or very specific to an industry, you can help the translator by providing:

– anything you have had translated before
– background material, such as other documents that relate to the one being translated
– any technical glossaries or dictionaries that you might have
– a contact person who can explain difficult concepts or who can respond to passages that could be misunderstood

What is translation memory technology?

As dreams of fully automatic high-quality translation faded, research turned to tools that could help translators be more productive, thus lowering the overall cost of the process. One of the most important outcomes was translation memory technology, now extensively used by virtually all translation companies and most freelance translators.

This technology allows translations to be saved in a database that associates source sentences with their translations. In time, more and more sentences in new jobs will match the ones saved in the database, or will be very similar (what is called a “fuzzy” match) . This allows the translation memory technology program to automatically suggest the translation or present a close match. The cost savings provided by this technology are usually shared with the client in the form of a lower rate for matching or nearly-matching text. Castle Associates is highly proficient in the use of Trados Workbench, the most widely-used translation memory technology in the world.

Somebody I know who speaks a foreign language disagrees with a translation that a translator did for me. What should I do?

Well-meaning friends or employees of your company may criticize something that they see in a professionally-done translation. We at Castle Associates are the first to admit that such a criticism should not be rejected outright. A friend or employee might know something that the translator didn’t. However, such criticisms are often based merely on personal preference. You should present such criticisms to the translator or translation company and let them respond. Ethical translation professionals will admit and correct their mistakes, but will stand behind decisions that they feel are correct and will explain their decisions.

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