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Guesswork in Translation

“If I don’t know how to translate something, should I just guess?”

Qualified translators are usually quite good at guessing what words and expressions mean. And yet, at QuickSilver Translate we work hard to prevent our translators from using this “skill”. Why does this happen?

Qualified translators have university degrees which include study or translation theory and practice, many of them also have a Masters. In short, they have all successfully passed exams. In a translation exam you generally have no dictionary, no access to the Internet, nor other research resources. As a consequence, they actually become quite skilled at guessing meanings. Provided they get most of it right and score more than about 70%, they pass the exam. Yet in professional translation, a 70% accuracy rate is totally unacceptable. Even in class exercises, students are exhorted not to share ideas, not to copy, not to ask others and in general, not to “cheat”. All of which is perfectly understandable in the context of university teaching, where the teacher needs to know how much the student knows without any outside help.

Find out more: Metrics for Evaluating Translations

Unfortunately, some qualified translators never lose the habits they have so diligently learned during their studies. To the extent that they feel it’s OK to save time by not doing proper research, and are sometimes reluctant to ask questions. At QuickSilver, we encourage all our translators to ask us when there is something they don’t understand, or can’t find a suitable translation for. Usually we are able to reply to them direct, using our source-language expertise. Alternatively, if the question relates to specific industry, or product, knowledge or terminology, we discuss the question with the client, or the end user. Reluctance to ask questions, even though it leads to a far higher-quality final text, seems to be based on the fear that we will think less of the translator, if they confess they do not know everything.

In fact, the opposite is the case: at QuickSilver we rate our translators (amongst other things) by their willingness to ask questions. Certainly, we would never give them negative points for this. Good translation is usually the result of a collaborative process, and a fundamental skill is “knowing when you don’t know“, and admitting it!

Find out more: Different levels of Translation Quality and Pricing

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