What is the difference between translating and interpreting?

Translation means the transfer of written messages from one language to another, while interpreting refers to the transfer of spoken messages. Sometimes ‘translation’ is used as a generic term covering both practices, but when hiring someone’s services it will be less confusing if you distinguish between these different skills.

What can a professional translator do for you?

  • give you access to documents written in a language you don’t understand
  • enable you to communicate your views in another language
  • enhance the image of your company or organization by producing a professional document that is accurate and uses a style and terminology that are consistent and appropriate for your target audience
  • help sell your products or services and ensure that a bad translation does not compromise your reputation or the quality of your products or service
  • save you money by reducing the number of errors in your documents and eliminating delays and the need for expensive patch-up jobs later
  • save you the worry and problems that arise from working with amateurs
  • save you from possible embarrassment by pointing out any problems in cross-cultural communication.

If you care about the quality of the end product, it is essential to use a professional translator rather than somebody who simply has a knowledge of two languages.

What are the qualities of a good translator?

  • a sophisticated understanding of the foreign language
  • an understanding of the topic being translated
  • an ability to transfer ideas expressed in one language into an equally meaningful form in the other language
  • an above-average capacity to write well in the target language (the language in which the translation is written), using language appropriate for the topic and readership
  • broad general knowledge
  • a sound knowledge of the two cultures involved
  • mental agility
  • sensitivity and attention to detail
  • an understanding of specialized terminology in the field of the translation and a willingness to do further research if necessary
  • training or experience.

Translation is more than just a mechanical exercise in looking up words in a dictionary and substituting the grammatical constructions of one language for those of another. Often there is no one-to-one equivalence between words in different languages—for instance, a particular word might have different emotional connotations in the other language. A professional translator will be aware of these potential difficulties and know how to cope with them.

What are the characteristics of a good translation?

Accuracy, logic and clarity in expression are key characteristics of a good translation, along with an appropriate tone and level of language (e.g., level of formality or technicality). On-time delivery is also essential. Above all, a translation must fulfil the function you require of it. With a translation for use in court, accuracy will be of paramount importance, even if the translation reads somewhat awkwardly, whereas with texts for publication it is vital that the translation reads smoothly. Tell the translator about your needs, what and who the translation is for, and what you expect the final product to look like. This won’t take a minute, but could save you a great deal of money and frustration and will help ensure a good translation.

Can translators work in both language directions equally well?

It is very rare for a translator to be able to translate equally well in both directions, even if both languages are spoken fluently. Writing well, with correct grammar and full expressiveness, requires particular skills and greater expertise than spoken fluency. In general, a translator working into his or her native language is less likely to make grammatical errors, and is more likely to be able to produce text in the desired style of the target language and/or market. Conversely, a translator working from his or her native language is less likely to make mistakes in comprehension of the source text, but is more likely to make grammatical errors and to be limited in his or her command of syntax and style in producing the translation. This is not a hard and fast rule, however, as some non-native writers are indeed capable of producing fine text, and even native readers may on occasion misunderstand the source text they are reading. In addition, in certain specialized fields it is simply not possible to find a good translator who is a native speaker of the target language and has the requisite field-specific knowledge to understand the topic.

How much will it cost?

Clients are sometimes surprised at the high cost of translations. Remember that good translators are very experienced professionals who not only have expertise in the two languages concerned but also often have a background in a specialized field such as finance, law, or a particular area of science or technology. Translators often specialize in a certain field and spend long hours reading in that discipline and broadening their knowledge. They may also have tertiary training in translation, often at the postgraduate level. Translation work is often highly complex and demanding, both intellectually and in terms of working hours. Translators must be remunerated at a level commensurate with their skills, knowledge and training. Trying to save money by using someone who is not competent will cost you more in the long run, both in money and in time, if you have to pay someone else to fix the translation. Poor pay reduces your translator’s motivation to produce a quality product for you.

Translators normally charge based on either the length of the source text (the text to be translated) or the length of the target text. The billing unit varies from translator to translator (e.g., per word, 100 or 1,000 words, character, byte, line or page, or based on the time involved, a lump sum or royalties), so you will need to discuss this with your translator.

It is impossible to quote a ‘typical’ rate, since it will vary according to the subject matter, the degree of technicality, the deadline, whether the text is being translated from Japanese or from English, and the country where the translation is made. In Japan rates for Japanese-English translation range anywhere between about 3,000 and 10,000-plus yen per page, while rates for English-Japanese translation in Japan tend to be lower. There is a broad correlation between price and quality—as the saying goes, “If you pay in peanuts, expect to get monkeys.”

There may be a minimum charge for small jobs, or a premium for rush jobs or work involving weekends or public holidays. Jobs involving considerable research or complex formatting are sometimes charged on a time basis. Translators can give you a free estimate of the cost of a translation, but first they will need to see the document or at least a few sample pages.

How long will it take?

Much longer than it takes to simply type out the text! The time required will depend on the length of the text, its difficulty (e.g., how many specialized terms it contains, how complex the argument is, whether it requires research or editing of the original text), the translator’s ability and familiarity with the topic, and the translator’s existing workload. As a very rough guide, however, a figure of 10 pages a day is a reasonable expectation, although translators working in a field with which they are familiar are often able to work more rapidly and specialized texts may take longer. Allow your translator time to resolve any queries and carry out any necessary research, as well as time to revise and polish the draft and format it according to your requirements. If you need a translation urgently, be prepared to pay rush rates (a surcharge of anywhere between 25% and 100%).

Is it acceptable for the translator to make changes to the text?

Literal word-for-word translation often results in a different meaning or nuance, or might be simply awkward or even laughable. Often, therefore, your translator will render the text quite freely so as to better convey the intended meaning. Moreover, languages reflect the cultures in which they are used, and things that are said in Japanese society, for instance, might sound inappropriate if translated literally into English. Your translator might make or suggest certain changes so that the translation ‘works’ better, omitting or adding material or rewriting the text so it is more suitable for the target audience. Although the final decision rests with you, the client—and you should make it clear to the translator how much freedom he or she has—your translator will often be able to offer sound advice based on a knowledge of both cultures so as to avoid communication breakdown caused by linguistic or cultural differences.

Should the translation be checked?

If for some reason translators are working into a language in which they do not have full written competence, it is advisable to have the translation checked by a native speaker of that language, particularly if the translation is for publication. This will help eliminate any incorrect, verbose or awkward expressions and enable parts where the meaning is not conveyed clearly to be rewritten.

Even when the translator is working into his or her native language, unless your translator has proven to be reliable and competent it is a good idea to have someone check the translation for accuracy, style and terminological appropriateness. Make sure that the checker is provided with the same information as the translator and is an experienced translator or editor. An ability to speak two languages does not necessarily mean a ‘checker’ is competent to monitor the work of a professional translator, and such checkers may make unnecessary changes or even changes for the worse.

In reality many translations are not checked at all—which is why it is even more important to use a good professional from the outset and establish a long-term relationship of trust. Make sure you let your translator know whether the translation has to be fully ready for publication or whether it will be checked and edited first.

If necessary for legal purposes, the translator can provide a notarized statement that the translation is true and accurate to the best of his or her knowledge.

Selecting a freelance translator

Select your translator on the basis of relevant qualifications and experience, appropriate resources, availability and cost. If your job requires specialized terminology or knowledge, look for someone who at least has experience in that broad area. Working with a translator directly has several advantages over working through an intermediary, including a generally lower cost and greater direct input into the translation process. If you are likely to need someone on a regular basis, you might consider employing your own in-house translator.

Many translators advertise in Yellow Pages or other directories, such as the JAT Directory, but it is important to ascertain their qualifications and their linguistic and subject expertise.

  • Shop around and ask your associates for recommendations.
  • Keep an eye out for good translations in a related field and track down the translator if possible.
  • Ask potential translators for references or samples of work they have already done (both source and target texts).
  • Have prospective translators do a half-page sample text, for which you should offer to pay. Show the translation to a language-sensitive native speaker of the target language.
  • Verify the translator’s capabilities through cross-checks and on-going checks.

Working with a translation company

For some jobs you might need to employ a translation firm that can offer additional services and quality control and that has the facilities to provide camera-ready artwork and can handle large volumes, tight deadlines and complex or unusual subjects. Most translation companies rely on both freelance translators and in-house staff, so when choosing an agency you should ask about the qualifications and experience of their freelance and in-house translators. You should also ask whether the company adds value to the translations—e.g., through editing and proofreading or desktop publishing. Translation companies charge a commission on top of the amount paid to the translator, so they are usually more expensive than working with a translator directly.

Whether using a freelance translator or an agency, once you find a good translator it is a good idea to use the same person consistently so that he or she becomes familiar with your work and the preferred vocabulary, style and formatting and can do an even better job for you in the future. Good communication between all parties involved in the translation process is also essential for obtaining a quality translation.

Helping your translator help you

The more planning and preparation that goes into a translation task and the more you cooperate with your translator, the better the outcome is likely to be. These steps won’t take long, but could save you a great deal of money and frustration. Here are some tips to help you.

1. Before assigning the work to a translator

  • When writing a document that you know will be translated later, take particular care to ensure it is written clearly, accurately and unambiguously and contains no factual errors or formal deficiencies. It is impossible to translate something that doesn’t make sense into something that does make sense, and problems in the original text will slow down the translation process and adversely affect the finished product.
  • Don’t send a document for translation without first checking in advance whether the prospective translator is available.
  • Show the translator the actual document—or at least a substantial sample—in advance.
  • Provide clearly legible texts. Tiny print, handwritten copy and third-generation faxes make your translator’s job more difficult and increase the risk of error.
  • If the material is to be published, agree on who will do the proofreading (the translator or a third party?).

2. Information to provide the translator

  • Brief your translator on the purpose of the translation (e.g., whether it is for information, publication, a meeting, or use in court), on the intended readers (e.g., British or American; how much knowledge they have of the subject and the source culture), and on how this document fits in with any related documents. This will help the translator choose the most suitable approach and wording.
  • Clearly mark any sections that are not to be translated.
  • Let the translator know if the terminology should conform to any specific requirements (e.g., an in-house or industry-specific glossary). If possible, provide a list of specialized terminology that might appear in the document. This will help your translator do a better job, even if the glossary is in one language only. This might also usefully contain the official renditions of the names of departments or job titles, or the correctly spelled names of people.
  • Provide the translator with as much background material as possible (e.g., related correspondence, reports, glossaries, specifications, relevant website details; previously translated materials on a related topic), preferably in both languages. This will help the translator tailor the job to your needs.
  • Inform the translator of any particular style that should be followed (for instance, if the text has to match in-house style or the style of existing documents).
  • Brief the translator fully on any particular layout requirements (e.g., the handling of tables and diagrams, the placement of captions, whether identical page layout is necessary for producing a bilingual text). Remember that the translation might be longer or shorter than the original, which could affect the layout or typesetting.
  • Inform the translator of any software requirements (e.g., preferred word-processing/DTP package) and the physical form in which the translation is to be submitted (e.g., post, courier, express post, fax, disk, electronic file; camera-ready or not).
  • [In the English-language version] If possible, provide the correct spelling of the names of any people in the text. Japanese names can be read in many different ways, and although the translator can make an educated guess as to the most likely reading, potential errors can be avoided if you know the correct name. Again, if you know the official English name of any companies or organizations mentioned in the document it will help the translator.
  • [In the Japanese-language version] If possible, provide the katakana rendition of the names of any people, companies or organizations appearing in the text. This will ensure a close approximation of the correct pronunciation.
  • Provide sufficient context. A list of isolated items or an extract from a text will make it more difficult for your translator to provide an accurate and appropriate rendition.
  • Provide any drawings, illustrations, tables or graphs (even if not to be translated), as they may help explain the rest of the text.
  • Give the name and number of a contact person in case the translator needs to clarify something. Ideally, this should be the original writer of the text or a specialist in the subject matter. This contact person should be prepared to help the translator by explaining any unclear parts in the text or providing industry jargon. Be prepared to liaise with your translator to ensure a good result. Collaboration helps produce better-quality documents. It might be necessary to meet with the translator if the job is large or complex.
  • Let the translator know if the source text and reference material should be returned.

3. Deadlines and financial arrangements

  • Allow sufficient time in the documentation schedule for translation.
  • Agree on a realistic deadline before the translator starts work. Allow the translator sufficient time to do any necessary research and to produce a quality translation. Remember that a great deal of time and effort probably went into the document you want translated and it is important enough for you to pay for it, so allow your translator time to do it justice. If this is not possible, be prepared to pay a higher charge as rush rate to compensate the translator for staying up all night or working all weekend.
  • Understand that doing a ‘rough’ summary may be nearly as time-consuming as producing a full translation and may result in a distorted picture of the text if the translator is not fully briefed on exactly what you are looking for. (It is usual with summary translations to pay the translator for the time involved, rather than by the length of the summary text.)
  • Decide whether the translation is for information purposes only or for publication, and allocate your budget accordingly. The former are usually less expensive than translations for publication, which might involve considerable adaptation for a different audience.
  • Agree on financial arrangements in advance. When is payment to be made (e.g., on delivery, 30 days)? Will it be a single payment or an advance plus installments? What method of payment is to be used (e.g., bank transfer, check)? Will there be any additional charges (e.g., for rush jobs, complex layout or special presentation)? What compensation will be paid if the job is cancelled after work has commenced?

4. General tips

  • Understand that if translators ask you questions it does not mean they are incompetent—informed questions are an indication of a professional attitude. Be willing to provide answers if you can.
  • Don’t try to economize by asking your translator to compromise on quality. In the long run this will only work to your detriment.
  • Beware of splitting large jobs between several different translators unless there is a way to ensure terminological and stylistic consistency.
  • With translated texts that are for publication, it is a good idea to show the proofs to the translator before going to press. This can avoid expensive mistakes.
  • Be willing to give feedback once the job has been completed, especially if—despite your and the translator’s best efforts—some editing has been necessary. Giving the translator a copy of the marked-up text enables him or her to learn from the mistakes and suggestions. Translators usually welcome constructive comments, and helping the translator will ensure a better job and better value for money in the future.

What about formal qualifications for translators?

Some universities and commercial schools offer courses in translation. People who have studied in such courses can be expected to have a sounder grasp of translation than novices without any training, but they may still lack the experience of long-standing practitioners. Translators come from a range of professional and technical backgrounds and do not necessarily have an academic background in languages or translation.

Some countries have accreditation exams whose aim is to determine whether the candidate possesses a certain minimum degree of competence. In Japan there is no government-administered accreditation scheme, although some commercial schools offer tests and certificates of varying credibility and validity. In the United States the American Translators Association offers an accreditation exam, and in Australia the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters holds exams at several different levels of expertise.

The value of accreditation depends on the reliability of the testing methodology, and even a valid examination is no guarantee that someone who has passed it can perform well on all kinds of texts. When hiring a translator who claims to be accredited, it is important to ask who the accreditation authority was, and in which language direction and at what level the person is accredited. Although accreditation is one indication of a serious and professional approach to translation and it is becoming more common, most Japanese/English translators today do not have formal accreditation. This does not necessarily mean they can’t do a good job. Ask prospective translators about their experience in the particular field for which you require a translation. You might also ask some of their other clients about the quality of the translator’s work and if it was delivered on time and per instructions.

Translator ethics

Translators operate under general ethical principles that require them not to disclose information acquired in the course of their work and not to undertake work that is demonstrably beyond their ability (at least without informing the client). They are also required to maintain impartiality, take all reasonable care to be accurate, be responsible for the quality of their work, continue developing their professional knowledge and skills, and respect and support their fellow professionals.

Is machine translation a viable alternative?

Today there are many software packages on the market that claim they can translate automatically. With translation between European languages, machine translation packages can sometimes serve a rudimentary purpose by providing a very rough idea of the gist of the document. Even so, they work best on texts with very restricted and repetitive subject matter or texts written according to strictly controlled guidelines. Machine translation soon shows its shortcomings when faced with authentic or complex texts that encompass the full range of expression, ambiguity and nuances present in everyday texts—not to mention literature. Extensive pre-editing and post-editing by human experts is usually needed for machine-translated texts, so generally it is cheaper—and certainly better in terms of quality—to employ a professional translator from the outset. Moreover, Japanese and English are very different languages used in very different cultures, and machine translation in this situation is far more problematic than between European languages. Fully accurate, high-quality machine translation with no human input is unlikely to ever be a reality, particularly between English and Japanese.

JAT membership

Membership in the Japan Association of Translators (JAT) is open to any individual with an interest in translation from or into the Japanese language. Corporate membership is not available. Employees of translation companies may, however, join as individuals.

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