I am often asked 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 deceptively complicated.

A couple of points:

  1. A linguist is not the same as a translator. A linguist in the purest sense generally refers to a theoretical linguist, often an academic. These are people like Noam Chomsky who do not sit around converting text between languages all day but rather analyze what language is and how it works. The make big fancy diagrams and toss example sentences at each other in an attempt to deduce the rules that govern human language and understand how we learn it. 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, and some of that foundation helps me today. Knowing phonetics definitely helps one learn languages and sing better.
  2. 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.” AAARRRRRRGGGGHHHHHHHH!!!!!!
  3. Translation by humans is NOT being replaced by machine translation (MT). This has been “about to happen” for decades. Language is too nuanced and complicated for that ever to be possible. Have you ever tried to use Google Translate? Even if you speak no foreign language, run an English text through there into a foreign language, and then run the translation back into English. The new text will have nothing to do with the original. It’s like a really bad game of telephone. I don’t know who originally coined this, but MT is “the technology of the future, and it always will be.”

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