September 30 - International Translation Day

Posted on September 30, 2018

Translators and interpreters do an incredibly important service in an increasingly shrinking global society! 

Translators work with written words and text, translating from one language into another. Interpreters do basically the same thing, but with spoken words.

Translators also edit machine-made translations (computerized translation), which as you can imagine is sometimes plain old wrong! I mean, how easy is it to translate the following sentences:

Hattie would've given anything to live in a melting pot like the United States.
Mike is a total couch potato.
Truman had a sign on his desk that said, "The buck stops here."

Translating sentences with slang, idioms, and metaphors can be very tricky. It's not just a matter of looking up each word individually and then writing down the French or German or ____ [fill in the blank] word from the dictionary. Instead, translators have to understand the meaning of the entire sentence, and make sure that their translation captures the overall meaning. Also, really good translators strive to capture the feeling of the text, the voice of the author, the flavor of the words. 

Even in poems. Maybe even especially in poems!

Many translators are fluent in just two languages. Remember, fluency requires knowing slang and idioms, and that often requires knowing a fair bit of history and culture as well as the language.

However, some people recommend that professional translators know more than two languages. Obviously, with the requirement of learning slang and culture and some history for context, translators probably cannot gain translator-level fluency in 12 or 20 languages, but knowing at least two languages in addition to your own native language can be helpful in keeping the right amount of work coming your way. Many translators know several related languages, such as Spanish and Italian and Portuguese.

Also, translators can specialize in particular industries or fields. For example, I know a Spanish-English translator who has extensive knowledge of several versions of the Christian religion, of the Church's history, of the Bible, etc.; she could bring all of that expertise to bear when translating an article about Christian values or Biblical interpretations. Other translators might have expertise in the law, medicine, health insurance, or computer technology and related industries.

That said, some translators know a lot of languages. Apparently Ioannis Ikonomou, the Greek-born man who began serving in the European Commission as a translator, knows 32 different languages! He is considered fluent in the 23 official languages: Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarians, Irish, Italian, Latvians, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, and Swedish. He is also fluent in Arabic, Russian, Turkish, and Chinese. He is the only one in the European Commission who is trusted to translate into Chinese.

If you are interested in learning more about this hyper-polyglot, here is an article about Ikonomou, who learned English at age 5, German at 7, Italian at 10, Russian at 13, East African Swahili at 14, Turkish at 16. His reasons for learning all these languages? Mostly curiosity. He says he wanted to talk to other people, he wanted to know the languages of his favorite authors, he wanted to learn a new language just for "fun"!

Here is an article about how to become a professional translator.

One thing that is really interesting to me is how many movies and TV shows are available in multiple languages. For example, in Netflix you can search for shows available in a particular language, you can get dubbed shows by searching "Audio in...," you can get subtitles by searching "Subtitles in...," and you can even get custom subtitles by using a Google Chrome extension called Super Netflix! These things can help you learn new languages - but someone has to be doing these translations or checking machine-created translations! Wouldn't that be a fun job?

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