For freelance translators like us the role of translation companies is important due primarily to their active promotional activities within the translation market. Since it's necessary for their own success that they choose skilled translators, in order to make ourselves better known for their Italian and Japanese translation work we have summarized our thoughts on important topics.
Notes for some of our best clients:
“Translation Companies” — Table of contents
What makes a translation “difficult”?
This may seem trivial, but translation difficulty is a relative concept. Many argue, for example, that specialized technical/scientific or specialized translations are the most difficult, and these would certainly prove challenging for translators who have limited knowledge of their subject matter. Yet those same technical texts could be child's play for a translator who is an expert in the field; that individual might instead struggle to adequately express other source texts which seem easier at first glance but actually require greater linguistic prowess.
Anyone of us translators
Translations are not like mathematical equations. In fact, they can have more than one exact solution, or none.
Even a personal or sensitive business letter or email intended to convincingly convey a particular situation or mood may require considerable effort to interpret it correctly and render its true meaning into the target language with all of the accompanying nuance. In addition to deft power of expression, such translations often demand more translation experience and time than technical translations.
In a broad sense, the most difficult translations are simply those that require the most time to complete, regardless of what classification clients might assign them based on nebulous criteria.
For instance, we notice that many Japanese translation companies establish rate tiers for different categories of documents, where general communication such as private and business letters and emails falls on the lowest end of the spectrum regardless of their actual content, and as if they could never be a vehicle for transmitting difficult-to-translate matters. Such practices are not unique to Japan, however.
The editor's role for translation companies
Although the requirement to have a translation checked by another linguist is often justifiable or even recommended (it is harder for translators to find their own errors, and certainly easier to find somebody else errors), it sometimes creates a new problem instead of fixing one. This is usually due to the editor not being up to the task, or not very honest, a by-product of a rather crowded field within which many translation companies fail to maneuver correctly.
Linguistic competence and professional ethics aside, it's surprising that the fact that languages are not an exact science has to be repeatedly stressed. To arrive at the desired result of a correct transposition of the original message, different translators will inevitably follow different paths known as writing styles. Unfortunately, these writing styles are often easy prey for bad or unethical editors.
Translation companies without the in-house multilingual resources to properly understand certain target languages (Italian and Japanese in our case) are typically prone to this error, while others may find themselves at the mercy of external and therefore less verifiable editors. That is why it is necessary to at least involve the original translators in the revision process, so that they are granted the right to respond and justify their language choices.
Another potentially serious but very frequent error (in particular in Japanese translation agencies) is the use of Japanese revisers to check texts translated from a language they are not native of (Italian in our case), because although they do not objectively have the ability to detect obvious translation errors, they also arrogate to themselves the right to intervene in the style of writing.
Certifications and actual translation experience
There are basically two ways one can become a professional translator: by receiving a university education in translation or foreign languages, that is a pure linguistic education, or, in addition to having been learned in normal school studies, by gaining work experience in industries where languages have been an important practical tool in supporting one or more specializations.
But how can one become a good translator? If, as we believe, the key prerequisites are mastery of the languages involved, strong writing skills in the target language, knowledge of the required registers, some degree of talent in languages along with a fundamental passion for them, and hands-on experience acquired over time, what then makes these two approaches different in terms of actual results? Besides, is it really true that a degree in translation or foreign languages guarantees the best results? Opinions vary, and we have our own too.
There are unfortunately still many translation companies that select only those freelance translators with specific university educations, thus wasting opportunities to test other professionals who not only have mastered their working languages as well as or better than translators with degrees, but who also have broader knowledge of various fields of application. This last advantage is something that prospective translators simply cannot be taught within the walls of a university and must therefore expend significant time and effort to "catch up on."
Word by word translation?
Good translators avoid to translate too literally, one of the most frustrating aspects of the profession and probably the least understood by those unfamiliar with the needs and peculiarities of languages involved, especially in the case of Italian as it requires a special attention to writing style that is enormously difficult for a Japanese native to learn well.
While it's true that literal translations are more easily accepted—often demanded, even—in technical translation where a word-by-word rendering might be preferable to avoid any subjective interpretation of the resulting text, they often suffer from poor readability which highlights one or more deficiencies on the part of the translator, whether it be inexperience, a limited knowledge of the source text (and thus its meaning, hence the desire to translate word for word), an unsuccessful attempt to meld old and new translations, the usage of sloppy translation memories, or a blind reliance on machine translation.
This tendency toward literal translation is especially strong when working with source texts written in Japanese or those which have been translated literally from Japanese into some other language. For these texts, it takes much more conscious effort to avoid the pitfall of literal translation than when working with languages that are more structurally similar to Italian. Our translation quality control page explains how we translate from Japanese the most difficult texts.
Literal translations often mask the inability of the translator to comprehend the source text or to use correct and articulate expressions. In some cases, the technique may be nothing more than an attempt to finish the translation quickly because the agreed-upon translation rate is too low.
Contrary to popular opinion, we feel that even technical manuals should adhere to certain writing standards and should not only be perfectly comprehensible in terms of content but also easy to read and appealing from an aesthetic point of view, rather than being a chore for the reader.
The excessive usage of foreign words
Italians and particularly the Japanese are fascinated by foreign words. They use it galore, often inappropriately, incorrectly, and almost always without real linguistic necessity. In this, surely no one beats the Japanese.
Examples of such cultural superficiality abound in many corners of our daily life, not only in translation. Social and historical reasons are often cited in attempts to explain this bizarre phenomenon, although its main catalysts are without a doubt the Internet and mass media. It is undeniable that languages evolve continuously (it has always been so) and that any attempt to resist such evolution would be futile. However, natural evolution resulting from long-term interaction between different cultures is one thing; one-way linguistic globalization driven solely by xenophilia is quite another entirely.
In our world, translators themselves are often to blame for encouraging this phenomenon. Failing to search for valid alternatives in one's own language, selecting words for conformity's sake, blindly accepting the suggestions of mass media, and even being fearful of going against the mainstream are all behaviors which lead to the much dreaded (by us, at least) linguistic flattening. "Nowadays they can be left untranslated in Italian too" is the typical justification in Italy, or "transliteration from English is smarter" is what many Japanese translators say, not realizing that Japan is now drowing in a world all in katakana (sorry, only in Italian).
We believe that translation companies should discourage their translators from the excessive use of foreign words and establish themselves as authoritative figures willing to confront those who make a habit of doing so without much justification.