What do translators do?

Some people ask me what translators actually do. It sounds pretty simple: we take a text in one language and convert it to a different language. In actuality, like yoga, it is incredibly diverse and deceptively complicated. Below are a few highlights.

A linguist is not the same as a translator. A linguist in the purest sense generally refers to a theoretical linguist, often an academic. They do not convert text between languages but rather analyze how humans learn languages and how languages are represented in the brain. I studied theoretical linguistics for a few years until I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I did get a good foundation in syntax, semantics, and phonetics during my master’s program, some of which helps me today. Knowing phonetics definitely helps me learn languages (and sing better!).

A translator converts written text; an interpreter converts spoken text. Nothing aggravates translators and interpreters more than when an esteemed publication such as the NY Times writes an article on the pope’s “translator,” when they are clearly referring to his “interpreter.” To people in “the biz,” this is like nails on blackboard!

Translation by humans is NOT being replaced by neural machine translation (NMT). NMT has gotten A LOT better in recent years. When I first wrote this post years ago, Google Translate was a joke. Now it does a decent job in certain limited domains. Unfortunately, many large language service providers seem to be jumping on the NMT bandwagon and hiring translators to “post-edit” the machine output. The reason? This is less expensive than having a professional perform the entire translation process.

BUT complex technical material remains beyond the grasp of NMT. It lacks the specialized vocabulary, eye for grammar subtleties, and research skills of a human translator. Thus, professionals obsessed with providing top-quality documents to their clients are safe…at least for now. 

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