A layperson may think of a translation as translating a text in the original language into the target language. This sounds so mechanical that numerous companies are trying their hand at solving this problem via Artificial Intelligence. And the technology is constantly getting better and better! Google Translate, Reverso and DeepL offer solutions that are already able to produce meaningful, readable output with just one click.
So, does the world still need translators? To be blunt – yes, definitely, and for many decades to come. But, too often, translation is still seen as simply transposing a text into a target language. It is, however, becoming increasingly more important for translators to adapt their skills to modern times and the demands this places on them as well as to technological change.
Here at The Happy Beavers, we work with hundreds of content writers, editors and translators, and we occasionally see instances in which translators can be a little behind the times.
1. “Yes” to machine translation and “no” to ideologizing
No, DeepL & Co. are not a fad that will soon disappear. And, if used correctly, these tools can save a lot of time in translation work. Nevertheless, we repeatedly come across translators who reject the use of such tools on principle. To us, this rigid adherence to principles feels like a graphic designer trying to draw our new company logo with paper and pencil instead of Photoshop. Why not use the technology available where it makes sense? We will evaluate the result. How someone gets there is secondary to us.
In our experience, content writers are more accustomed to adapting to a variety of text assignments and are therefore often more flexible than many translators. Therefore, we think that learning to write could help translators break out of this ideologization.
2. CAT tools as a comfort zone
There is no doubt that CAT tools make life easier. CAT stands for “Computer Assisted Translation,” and CAT programs are available for a variety of purposes and budgets, from free versions to professional enterprise software.
What do CAT tools do?
The document is divided into easily translatable segments, usually sentence by sentence, and the translator can conveniently work their way through the document, segment by segment. No information is lost. There are automatic tools such as translation memory: This is a tool that remembers certain previously translated segments and suggests the preceding entries during the translation process. This can save a significant amount of time. Another tool often used by translators is the QA feature, which stands for “Quality Assurance.” It ensures consistency and reduces the error rate in the texts.
How efficient are CAT tools?
The question here is really whether CAT tools actually always achieve the best result. A study conducted by go.proz.com on the efficiency of CAT tools shows that about 93% of CAT tool users think that the tool helps them translate more efficiently. However, the answers varied greatly regarding the question as to how high the efficiency increase is. The largest proportion of respondents, which amounts to only 17%, indicated an increase in efficiency of 20% to 30%.
How should CAT tools ideally be used?
Let’s look at the following example:
A corporate client would like to have their website texts translated. One goal takes priority here: The client wants to sell and would like to now proceed in another language. The question arises whether a precise translation that retains the same structure always leads to the best result. Perhaps there are other aspects that should be emphasized in the target language in the beginning? Perhaps an explanatory sentence should occasionally be added because a certain piece of information is not clear in the other country? Or perhaps a paragraph should be omitted because it is not relevant to the content in the other language?
Experienced translators often immerse themselves in their CAT programs and know them inside out. Nevertheless, many show little interest in producing a target text instead of a translation, which may only loosely correspond to the original in terms of content but which produces the best possible effect in the target language.
3. Critical thinking
Even an original text can contain errors, sometimes they are fairly clear: Numerical errors, for example, or obvious misinformation. Since we as a company cannot read every text in its entirety when we receive it from the customer, it is up to the translator to bring any possible errors to our attention. But not all translators do that: If we notice the problem later and confront the translator, we often get the answer: “That’s what the original text said.” Excellent translators stand out by critically questioning their work and proactively pointing out (possible) mistakes.
Ultimately, translation work always involves consultation with the client. In the trade, this is known as “loyalty”. A good translation is measured, among other things, by whether the loyalty to the client, the customer and the target audience could be fulfilled.
4. Price per word
When we receive proactive applications from translators, they often include a price per word (with a huge range). A translation of 1,000 words can cost €40, €80 or even €150. The price is almost always justified with certificates, references or professional experience.
This method completely disregards the level of difficultly and the objective of a text. And in the end, someone always feels as though they got the short end of the stick: Either we, as the client, because we ultimately pay more for an easier job than it cost in effort, or the translator, who ends up working more than the estimate of their average price actually accounts for.
At the end of the day, texts for companies are a resource. They should ultimately yield a financial benefit, one that outweighs the cost. For this, it is sometimes necessary to insert authority links in the text, to accommodate keywords (which takes longer) or to work with similar formalities. However, this is not taken into account, if a price-per-word method is used. In reality, the tasks of a translator therefore go far beyond “pure translation.”
For this reason, we only hire translators who are paid on an hourly basis. This leads to greater job satisfaction because, in the end, no one is disadvantaged if the remuneration covers the actual effort as this effort can also differ between jobs.
The art of writing texts yourself
Let’s look at the big picture again: Typically, a client will seek out a translator when they have an original text and want it translated into a target language. A content writer is employed when a text in a specific language is needed.
Would it now make sense to employ content writers with foreign language skills, instead of translators, for the creation of website content? In fact, there are a few reasons to do so:
- Good content writers often have deeper SEO knowledge that can ultimately stimulate more traffic and conversion.
- Content writers are more flexible in formulating their texts because they can more easily transform an original text into a suitable end product that is only loosely based on the original. This guarantees a more individual end product.
But why employ translators for such tasks at all? Well, there are also good reasons for this:
- In the translation world, a common problem is that people with language skills, but without proper translation or language training, are too quick to trust themselves to translate or work professionally in the foreign language. This can quickly lead to major slip-ups. Often, it is necessary to only distinguish between nuances, but these can change the whole meaning of a sentence.
- Translators differ from content writers in that they have a thorough knowledge encompassing not only the languages in which they work but also the cultural differences between the source and target societies. Localization, i.e. the adaptation of text material to the target culture, is therefore generally easier for translators.
Ultimately, whether a content writer or a translator is better suited for the job depends greatly on the type of project. Translators, however, can still benefit from improving their writing skills and taking a leaf out of content writers’ book.
Learning to write as a challenge for the modern translator
At a time when compensation for translation is increasingly declining, it is important for translators to adapt in order to stand out from the crowd.
We therefore advise aspiring translators to learn how to write. In today’s world, work no longer follows the linear progression of the past which allowed for a task to be categorized into one area, such as writing, translating or editing, and the client to choose the appropriate specialist. Today, text specialists who can produce quality text output, regardless of whether they work from an existing original or not, are needed.
Here are seven pieces of advice we urge translators to take note of to improve their writing skills:
1. Read like it is your job
Reading regularly is an easy way to improve your writing skills. Start simple and gradually expand your horizons to more challenging material. Try to be truly aware of what you’re reading. Pay attention to aspects such as word choice, sentence structure and style.
2. Imitate your favorite authors
Next time you write something, try to put yourself in the shoes of an author you admire. Ask yourself how this author would express something. Imitate different writing styles and constantly ask yourself: Is this appropriate for this type of text?
3. Participate in a workshop
Participate in writing workshops in your area. Almost every university and many language institutes offer writing courses. Generally, you do not have to be a student to enroll in these courses. Numerous offers are available online.
4. Connect with like-minded people
Another great way to improve your writing skills is to exchange ideas with other aspiring writers or translators. You can share your work and have someone else revise what you have written. Outsiders’ opinions can give you more insight; a colleague might notice something you did not notice yourself. Listen to the feedback and then revise your work accordingly.
5. Edit, edit, edit
A major part of writing is actually rewriting. And, as we know, practice makes perfect. So, be hard on yourself. Do not hesitate to revise or even delete and reword entire paragraphs until you get the result right.
6. Start with the structure
Especially beginner writers often fear sitting in front of a blank page and not knowing how to fill the pages. After doing extensive research on the topic, it can help to start with a rough structure and then continue to refine it until you essentially end up with the entire text. When new thoughts come to you, do not be afraid to make notes at certain points in the text while writing.
7. Anticipate the reader’s questions
Virtually every text answers a question – imagine you are the recipient of the text and ask yourself: What expectations would I have of the text? What information would I need that would prompt me to stop searching Google after reading because I found the answer?
Translation and writing are closely related art forms. They both rely on each other. Writers provide translators with material, and, at the same time, writers need translators to reach a wider audience and cross cultural boundaries. However, only individuals who are as passionate about language as writers and have the same or a similar skill set will be able to truly stand out from the rest.
The authors, Luka Karsten Breitig and Antonia Ketzler, work at The Happy Beavers, an Estonian digital company specializing in online content creation.