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Criticising translators and their work

A translator’s lot is not an easy one. There are some professions – heart surgeon, physicist, deep-sea diver – which generate a sense of impenetrable expertise; no-one would dream of offering a neurophysicist their ten cents’ worth on the best way to go about thalamic deep brain stimulation, or telling an architect that his axonometric projection is off-centre.

But there is something about translation. Possibly because they seem to work in a field in which all human beings are (or consider themselves) de facto experts, namely communication, there is a tendency to see translators as drones, as harmless drudges, who do work which everyone else would be perfectly capable of doing were they a bit less busy. This is a bit like assuming that, because you are a competent driver, you will automatically know how to put an engine together.

This attitude conceals a lack of understanding which causes even the thickest-skinned translators frustration and, sometimes, offence . The fact is that translation is a deeply specialised art, and career translators will have spent as much time studying and training as any other professional.

Every translator has been on the receiving end of criticism from someone with zero experience, someone who often doesn’t even speak the target language of the translation in question. At QuickSilver, our favourite in this genre is the customer who sent an irate email accusing us of using an internet search engine to translate his document. Why? Because everyone knows that ‘make up’ is something women put on their faces, so the phrase ‘the make up of the committee’ was obviously an egregious mistranslation…

As with all the practitioners of those crafts which the modern world has downgraded from ‘professions’ to ‘services’, the translator is often defenceless in the face of this sort of criticism. Sometimes the only option is to bite our tongues and explain that, whilst the internet is awash with cowboys and amateurs, a respectable Language Service Provider like QuickSilver will use only experienced and specialised professional translators (all of whom only translate into their native languages), will never use internet translation engines, and will have a stringent review system which guarantees not only that the translation itself is of the highest possible quality, but also that it is phrased in an appropriate style or register.

Reputable translators are skilled and experienced linguists. They will repay your confidence.

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