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Guesswork in translation

Translators are usually quite good at guessing what words and expressions mean, and at QuickSilver we sometimes have to work hard to prevent them using this “skill”. Why does this happen?

Qualified translators generally have university degrees which include some study or translation theory and practice. They have all passed exams. In a translation exam you generally have no dictionary and no access to the Internet or other research resources. So 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 help.

Unfortunately, some translators never lose the habits they have so diligently learned, to the extent that they feel it’s OK to save time by not doing proper research and are reluctant to ask questions. We encourage all translators to ask us when there is something they don’t understand, or can’t find a suitable translation. Usually we reply to them direct, using source-language expertise, or we discuss the question with the customer or the end user. Reluctance to ask questions, even though it leads to a far better final text, seems to be based on the fear that we will think less of the translator if he or she shows they do not know everything.

In fact, in QuickSilver we qualify translators among other things by their willingness to ask questions, and certainly would not give them negative points for this. Good translation is often the result of a collaborative process, and a fundamental skill is “knowing when you don’t know“.

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