5 ways to make a translator mad

A few simple steps to make your translator go nuts

Being a translator is great. Except when it isn’t. One of the first things you’ll realise is that everyone thinks they know what a translator does, but not that many people actually do. It doesn’t stop them from sharing their opinion though! Here are a few guaranteed ways to annoy a translator...

1. Tell them how in a year or so they’ll have been replaced by Google Translate/a robot/a trained monkey

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard this, including from some otherwise quite smart people. Ok, so maybe there’s a grain of truth in it… Google Translate has gotten much better in the last 10 years, and there are some tasks which might have once required a professional translator but can now be handled by some judicious use of our friend Google. But note how I said SOME. If you want to get the gist of an email or website, or send a non-professional email to someone who speaks another language, go right ahead. But please don’t Google Translate your entire novel, website or corporate communications and then actually publish or send them! Google Translate can do quite a bit, but it can’t write accurately and grammatically, and nor can it replace a human’s judgement for the correct word for the context, style or specialist language (and certainly won’t for a LONG time).


2. Ask them ‘how do you say xxx?’ in Hungarian/English/Spanish/whatever.


Well, this isn’t really annoying, but the assumption that you are basically a walking dictionary is. Often, someone will ask me ‘what’s the Hungarian for (insert obscure technical thing here)?’ and then be horrified when I don’t know. Sorry to break it to you, but the fact I’m a professional German translator doesn’t mean I know every word or idiom in German off-hand. We translators use all sorts of reference sources to find the appropriate term… specialised dictionaries, translation software, term banks, Internet research, native speakers… And guess what? I don’t know every word in English either! Even if someone did carry the entire Oxford English Dictionary AND the Duden (German equivalent) in their head at once, it wouldn’t necessarily make them a great translator. Being a great translator is much more about picking up on the meaning and writing it in an equivalent style in your language. It’s more about being a good writer and researcher than a human dictionary or Google.

3. Ask them to do ridiculous/impossible jobs

I have a particular ‘favourite’ client who does this… Previous requests include: 100 pages ‘for tomorrow’, ‘Please can you translate this from French (not one of my professional source languages) INTO GERMAN?’ and offering rates like 2-3 cent per word. The polite reply to all of the above is ‘no, thank you.’ There are also other less polite ways to tell them where to put those kind of jobs. Rule one: don’t take on more work than can humanly be done in the time limit. Rule two: ONLY translate into your native language. Rule three: don’t accept less than 8 cent per word unless you’re working for a charity or on probation. And please don’t ask me or anyone else to do any of those things. We’re not machines and we can’t produce perfect, instant translations. If you’re asking for something to be done in a stupid time limit, don’t expect it to be good. Ditto if you’re paying peanuts. If you want a great quality translation that you can publish and use… you’re going to have to give the translator a bit of time, respect and a half decent rate of pay. See the chart!


4. Send them a job that is WAY outside their specialism


This links in with my point above: we are not human dictionaries, and nor can a dictionary do the job. It’s a sad fact that many people who commission or work with translations have never translated in their life and may not even speak another language. I.e. they have no idea what they’re talking about. Ok, not their fault necessarily, but they may need a gentle explanation of why you can’t do what they ask. Most good translators can only handle 1-2 really technical specialisms. That’s because it’s not as simple as simply subsituting one word for another. Someone who is a medical translator will have a really good knowledge of medicine, biology, the medical profession, how medical documents should look and read, and how to use the appropriate terminology. Do I know the right way to describe a specific chemical process, drug action mechanism or medical procedure? No. So I don’t take on specialised medical translations and screw them up. Rule of thumb is: if you couldn’t write an essay about it, don’t translate it. Even if I can look up the words in a legal translation, say, I really have no idea if I’ve found the right word for the right context or if I’m using it in the right way. Is that what a lawyer would actually say? Is that the word you’d normally find on a legal document? If you don’t know, stick to what you do. In my case, I do business translations. Because I’ve seen my fair share of employment contracts and I know how they should look, I’ve worked with more experienced professionals on business projects and learned from them, I’ve studied business to sixth form level, and I’ve done enough of this type of work to know the main ins and outs of how business and real estate work in Germany. I can manage some things a little way outside: finance, economics, manuals, medical records…. But will say no thanks to anything too in-depth in the legal or medical arena, or anything to do with engineering, computing or something else I don’t really understand.

5. Ask them when they’re going to get a ‘real’ job.

Yeah, this happens quite a lot as well. Somehow being a freelance translator isn’t really seen as a ‘proper’ job. Maybe because you can work from your bed if you want, take holiday when YOU choose and have as many tea breaks as you like without someone shouting at you. But yes it’s a real job. I’m not a full-time freelancer, but my freelance work earns me real, actual money that goes into my bank account once a month and I can spend it on real things. Like council tax. The same applies to freelance writers, editors, proofreaders etc. Because we tend to work from home in our own time, we’re not on a level with office-bound ‘real’ workers. Or because we work with words not power tools, people assume anyone can do it and it’s not a real skill. But just because we can all speak a certain amount of words doesn’t mean we’re all qualified to write, edit or proofread in our own language (as comments on the Daily Mail website, or even the articles themselves can attest!!) And speaking more than one language doesn’t automatically qualify you to be a translator. Most translators have a degree or other qualification. I have two, actually! Most reputable translators have qualifications that they worked very hard for, hard-won experience and a range of skills beyond speaking 2+ languages. You need to be a good writer in the target language, with excellent spelling, grammar and punctuation; have a good knowledge of various types of software; be an expert in your chosen specialism and have a lot of patience, just to start with.

Now you know how not to treat a translator.
You are ready to deal with your professional Hungarian translator.