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Translators and translation users

As we have heard from the translators’ accounts in the previous section, the ideas and expectations that clients have of what professional translators and interpreters can and should do is often a source of frustration for translators.

A great example of this mismatch of expectations circulated on Facebook a few months ago comparing translators to car mechanics:

“Can you repair my car? I need it for tomorrow.”
“Can I see it?”
“No. Not until you tell me if you can fix it.”
“Um…What kind of car is it?”
“A blue one.”
“I mean the manufacturer and model.”
“That’s personal information I don’t want to disclose. When will it be ready?”
“Well…what noises has it been making? How old? Mileage?”
“Questions, questions! Am I supposed to tell you how to do your job? Just tell me how long it’ll take to fix it. Oh, and I can only afford €X.’

See: If translators were car mechanics

Why is it that translators and translation users don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to what it takes to produce a translation? Is it simply a question of ignorance on the part of the client, who doesn’t know how language works (Transpremium, 2016)? Or is it a sense of superiority on the part of the translator who expects clients to be translation experts (Gellinek, 2016)?

Though both the above scenarios may have some truth in them, perhaps a better explanation is that translation means different things to different groups of people. If you are a non-translator and approach it from the outside, as a client or reader, translation is primarily a text that enables you to access a piece of information written in a different language.

For translators, who experience it from the inside every day in their professional life, translation is primarily an activity. Although the text is important for the translator, the different tasks involved in the process take precedence: doing research, translating words, phrases, registers, proofreading the translation, delivering the text to the client, getting paid etc. Douglas Robinson makes a very useful distinction between the ‘internal’ perspective of the translator and the ‘external’ perspective of the non-translator or translation user:

  • Internal perspective: A translator thinks and speaks about translation from inside the process, knowing how it’s done. She possesses a practical sense of the problems involved and the techniques used to solve them and, importantly, the limitations of those techniques.

  • External perspective: A non-translator (especially a monolingual reader or client) thinks and speaks about translation from outside the process, not really knowing what it involves, but having a clear sense of what they expect the ‘finished product’, the translated text, to look and sound like.

(Adapted from Robinson, 2012:7)

For most clients a good translator should be reliable, quick and cheap. But the very definition of reliability, speed and cost are dependent on whether we look at them from an internal or external perspective. For example, while for clients a reliable translator is one that produces a translation that is 100% correct, translators know that languages differ greatly in the way they communicate information and 100% equivalence between texts is almost always impossible.

What a reliable translator can guarantee is that his work will be carried out with confidentiality and professionalism, that it will be carefully researched, its terminology checked and the text revised and proofread to a professional standard.

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This article is from the free online course:

Working with Translation: Theory and Practice

Cardiff University