Posted by: patenttranslator | August 22, 2014

Let’s Stop Educating Our Clients About Translation

 

It has become something of a fad to keep emphasizing that translators need to educate their clients about complicated issues having to do with translation.

I read a number of posts on this subject written on translation blogs by well meaning but deeply misguided translators. We supposedly need to keep explaining to our customers all of these things that they keep getting wrong.

No, we don’t need to do that. For example, non-translators don’t need and don’t really want to know that there is allegedly a big difference between the word “translator” and “interpreter”. Why should they care about this “major difference” between these two words when it will become obvious after the first few words whether what they need is translation of written text or interpretation of spoken word?

In any case, if this distinction is not really made consistently in English by native speakers of English, and it certainly is not since the verb “to translate” is used by native speakers both for translation of written word and for interpretation of spoken language, who is using the wrong word, the “ignorant” client, or the supercilious know-it-all who calls herself “translator” and wants to correct the ignorant world surrounding her?

It is a somewhat different story in other languages where the root of the word may sometime clearly indicate whether the activity described by the word refers to interpreting or translating. For example in German, “dolmetschen” means only to interpret, while “übersetzen” generally means to translate, although it is also used to mean “to interpret” in colloquial German. Similarly, in Japanese, 通訳する (tsuyaku suru) means only to interpret, while 翻訳する (honyaku suru) means to translate, although it is again used also for the verb “to translate”. The same is true about the words for interpret (tlumočit) and translate (preložit) in Czech and other languages.

“To translate” and its various equivalents in a number of languages simply means both “to translate” and “to interpret”, and there is nothing foolish translators can do about it.

So why not let people speak the way they have been speaking all their life, especially since everybody else is ignoring this terribly important difference between these two words in English and other languages anyway? But for some reason, some translators want to correct the way everybody else is using their own language. It is almost as if some of these translators have been entrusted with  an important mission, namely a mission to change the way people use certain words, either because they have nothing better to do with their time, or perhaps because it is their divine mission in life and they are commanded by God to do so, sort of like Joan of Arc was commanded by God to rid France of the evil English.

Joan of Arc fulfilled her mission, but it goes without saying that to try to make people see this difference in English is a complete waste of time.

I too usually want to know only the absolute minimum about a lot of things that I absolutely need to know about, even on subjects that are much more important than the difference between the verbs “to translate” and “to interpret”.

For instance, I really don’t want to know a lot about my car. As far as I’m concerned, as long as I know enough to be a safe driver (more or less), I know plenty. For everything else, there is a toll free number for “road assistance service” in my wallet that comes with my car insurance, and when I still have a question about something, I can always ask Jimmy at the car shop about what is going on under the hood of my car.

The reason why I patronize Jimmy’s car shop is precisely because whenever I ask him a stupid question, he will patiently explain things to me in such simple terms that even a total car-idiot such as myself can understand it. He often uses diagrams and if it looks like I may still not be fully comprehending the essence of his simple explanation, he takes me to a car that is being serviced in the shop and demonstrates the issue in question on that car.

Translators, take heed and learn from Jimmy, the astute and resourceful car shop owner! The best way to keep your customer satisfied is not to bother him or her with too much extraneous and basically useless knowledge.

Most of our customers only want to know how much we charge, why we charge by the word or whatever other metric we may use, and why it takes 2 days to translate 10 pages when it takes only a few seconds to copy the same 10 pages. If that is about the extent of what they want to know about translation, it’s perfectly fine with me.

Just like there are some people who are not car mechanics but who love to fix and rebuild old cars, a distinct minority of our clients does have an acute interest in foreign languages.

We can still show off our incredibly superior knowledge of foreign languages to people who may be fascinated by the fact that the Japanese language generally makes no distinction between singular and plural, that a certain term is used generally only in Swiss German, or that that Slavic languages have so many cases (up to seven cases) with different endings in singular and plural for different declensions of every noun and adjective that it makes it next to impossible to learn these languages if you are a foreign speaker.

These are the people who will appreciate it when we share what we know about languages with them if they happen to be our customers.

The rest of them don’t really care about anything having to do with languages one way or the other and they will appreciate it if we try not to bother them too much with completely useless knowledge.

So let’s leave them in peace.

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Responses

  1. Bravo, once again you zero in on an aspect of the humbug silliness (that I initially came across in ATA’s Chronicle) surrounding the translation industry that can benefit from a little clear-eyed scrutiny.

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    • “… an aspect of the humbug silliness (that I initially came across in ATA’s Chronicle) …”

      I thought so, but I was not sure. Thank you for pointing it out.

      Like

  2. I’m not bothered either by clients not understanding the difference between ‘translator’ and ‘interpreter’, I can figure out quickly what they need. I am bothered when people who should know better use them incorrectly.

    When I read the title, I thought ‘educating’ referred to making them understand that translation is a professional service (when offered by professionals, of course) and that it costs as such. This is something quite a lot of people don’t know and we should not stop educating them.

    Point in case: huge company asks for a quote. They find it ‘ridiculously high’ and say they will only pay £200. The project consisted in approx. 10,000 words legal documents (and urgently, of course). I sent them the translation buyer’s guide, explained what translation entails, how much can be translated per day, examples of poor quality translations that ended up costing a lot more in the end etc. Even if we didn’t get this client, I hope they at least have a better idea now what professional translation is.

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  3. “When I read the title, I thought ‘educating’ referred to making them understand that translation is a professional service (when offered by professionals, of course) and that it costs as such. This is something quite a lot of people don’t know and we should not stop educating them.”

    I agree. I am referring mostly to the narrow and silly issue described in the post.

    The obvious ignorance of translation brokers is something that used to make me angry, but now I mostly just try to ignore their ignorance.

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  4. If what you mean is “don’t condescend to your clients”, I don’t think anyone will disagree – it’s a bad thing to do in any field, not just translation/interpreting (or car repair).

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  5. Is it even possible to condescend to people who make twice as much as I do?

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  6. […] It has become something of a fad to keep emphasizing that translators need to educate their clients about complicated issues having to do with translation. I read a number of posts on this s…  […]

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  7. Die meisten Deutschen kennen den Unterschied zwischen dolmetschen und übersetzen nicht und ich muss ständig erklären, dass ich Übersetzerin und keine Dolmetscherin bin. Nervt mich manchmal ganz schön, aber es gibt sicher Schlimmeres.
    Auf Polnisch bedeutet tłumaczyć übrigens sowohl “dolmetschen” als auch “übersetzen”, habe gerade nochmal nachgeschlagen. Interessant, dass es im Tschechischen zwei Wörter gibt.

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  8. “Die meisten Deutschen kennen den Unterschied zwischen dolmetschen und übersetzen nicht und ich muss ständig erklären, dass ich Übersetzerin und keine Dolmetscherin bin.”

    Exactly, that is what I am saying.

    It makes no sense to try to “educate” them, since they will probably always use these words interchangeably.

    It’s better to save our energy for something more worthwhile.

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  9. Great post as always! I do like to simply clear up the difference between translator and interpreter because the more people (media!) talk about our profession, the better. I tell most people that knowing the difference will make them smarter than the New York Times, which they like and tell their friends (win/win). A client even told me he used this new knowledge on a trivia contest and won! I think that’s fab — trying to do some PR work without being too annoying, of course. For lawyers, I like to tell them that it’s like libel/slander and they like that analogy a lot. In court, I do think it’s important to clear it up for legal reasons and I don’t swear under oath to “translate” the testimony, because I am not (Just in case; you never know. Yes, I am married to a lawyer.)

    But in general, I agree with you 100% and you have actually used the car example that I also frequently use to explain this (you stole it from me; hahaha). It’s our job to do the work and to make it easy on the customer — they do not need to know about all the nitty-gritty details. And my knowledge of my Prius is also very limited, which is why I go to Doug’s Auto Shop! The guy can fix stuff and explain it, too.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Hi Judy:

    Thanks for your comment.

    My main point is that the word “to translate” in fact means both “to translate” and “to interpret” in English and many other languages because that is how most people use it and translators don’t get to decide how words are used.

    So maybe we should just try to explain the difference between these two words as we see it only to those of our clients who might interested in it and stop wasting our energy on the rest of our clients.

    That’s the way I see it.

    By the way, I took your advice and updated my picture on Facebook, but I decided to stick with my younger picture on my blog.

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  11. Thanks for talking sense on the translator/interpreter issue. It really, really, really doesn’t matter worth a damn and usually only serves to perpetuate the image of language specialists as pedants obsessed with trivia while ignoring basic, glaringly obvious communication and business needs.

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  12. Hi Kevin:

    Thanks for your comment.

    “pedants obsessed with trivia while ignoring basic, glaringly obvious communication and business needs” … something is telling me that this exactly how the “translation industry” wants us to waste our time.

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  13. HI Kevin

    Yes, I agree with you about needing to move on from the obsession with the two terms. But as a Japanese translator and interpreter I need clients to understand the difference. Luckily, to date most of my clients do but the BBC is always saying ‘xx words are spoken by a translator’ to which my teenage son now shouts ‘Interpreter’.

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