Guest Post: Breaking Down Translation Misconceptions

August 1, 2019

hammer-682767__340.jpgThis post was provided by Richard Hale, managing director of Tongue Tied (Manchester) Ltd, a translation agency that provides specialist translations from and into any language. 

There are plenty of myths out there about translation, both about the skill itself and the industry as a profession…

We thought we’d do some serious myth-busting and set the record straight on some of the most common misconceptions about translation.

1. If you know another language, you can be a translator

So you know more than one language? Great!

Newsflash: This doesn’t automatically make you a good translator.

Of course you need to know more than one language to be able to translate, but there’s A LOT more to it than that!

Most professional translators have a degree in a related subject area as well as a postgraduate qualification specifically in translation.

Must-have skills for professional translators include: Accuracy, attention to detail, outstanding command of the source and target language, creativity and persistence  to name just a few.

This leads us on to our next misconception.

2. Translation is just changing each word in a text from one language to another

Sorry to break it to you but again, there’s a WHOLE LOT MORE to it than that.

If you tried to translate a text word for word, you would end up with a page of complete nonsense. Most words have more than one meaning in the source language as well as more than one translation in the target language. Not to mention things like imagery, idioms and metaphors.

Translating the German saying ‘ich verstehe nur Bahnhof’ into English word for word gives us ‘I only understand train station’ – erm??? (The English equivalent of this idiom would be ‘it’s all Greek to me’)

It’s crucial for the translator to get a thorough understanding of the source text for them to be able to translate it. And, taking us back to point number one – this means they have to have an impeccable understanding of both the source language and target language!

Then there’s the style and tone of the writing to think about – is the source text direct? Would that work in the target language? What does the client want?

3. It’s easy

I challenge you to say these three words to a translator:




I’m pretty sure I know the kind of reaction you’d get and it might involve some words that we shouldn’t be using in a professional setting!

Any translator will tell you that they can sometimes spend HOURS struggling over one sentence in a translation, trying over and over to find the right word or phrase for a very specific context.

Several cups of coffee and plenty of hair-tearing-out later, they might still not be happy with the solution that they’ve come up with, which leads us to our next point.

4. Accurate translation can be done quickly

Contrary to what some people believe and what some companies will promise, this is not the case.

Of course there are some texts that are simpler to translate than others, but each genre requires research, knowledge and understanding. Take a marketing slogan, for example. A marketing slogan might contain one short sentence or phrase, but it might take a translator a long time to come up with something that works just as well in the target language.

And, if you’re wondering how bad a rushed translation can really be, look no further than KFC’s marketing fail in China. They translated ‘finger lickin’ good’ as ‘eat your fingers off’. For some reason, the Chinese weren’t rushing to buy fried chicken with that particular slogan.

A good translation company will always tell you what can realistically be achieved within a given time frame.

5. Google Translate can do the job just as well

This HAS to be one of our favourites. As things currently stand, Google Translate still has a long way to go to put human translators out of business. Not only can Google Translate FAILS be misleading for potential clients and customers, they can also be incredibly embarrassing for businesses.

In 2015, a small town in Spain was really looking forward to its culinary festival celebrating its home-grown leafy-green veg ‘grelo.' When a rather different sort of crowd started showing up to events, the organizers realized that the Galician word ‘grelo’ had been Google-translated as a delicate female body part in Castilian Spanish. Needless to say those heading for the festival were bitterly disappointed.

Just look up ‘Google Translate fails’ online and you’ll see plenty of other cringey examples of Google Translate gone seriously wrong.

6. As long as you know the basics of the source language, you’ll be fine

Lots of people might think that because they did a bit of French at school, they can easily translate French into their native language. Sadly, or maybe not so sadly for the professional translators out there, this isn’t true.

Not only do translators have to have an outstanding grasp of the source language that they’re translating out of, they also have to have a thorough understanding of the cultures they work with. This includes spending time in the country where the source language is spoken and really being immersed in the language and culture and no, we’re not just talking about a two week holiday sunning yourself in the south of France. 

7. We don’t need translation because everyone can speak English

Thankfully, this is not the case!

While it’s true that English is widely spoken around the world as a second language, this doesn’t mean that people don’t want or need to see content written in their native language.

Only about 20 percent of the world population (1.5 billion people) speak English and only around 360 million of those speakers are native speakers of the language. That leaves A LOT OF PEOPLE who either don’t speak English as their native language or speak the language at all. 

It goes without saying that translating content into a target audience’s native language is more likely to resonate with them and have the impact that a business wants.