When Translators (and Language Students) Meet the Rest of the World

  • MYTH: Translation/language students and translators/interpreters are living dictionaries.
  • REALITY: Yes, we speak more than one language. No, we don’t know all the words in a given language. It’s impossible to know EVERY. SINGLE. WORD, even in your mother tongue. Vocabulary is important, but we are no living dictionaries and us humans can’t know everything.

I find situations like these annoying:

PERSON I’M TALKING TO: “How do you say *insert word here* in *insert language here*?”

I usually ask them to tell me the context (and think “Ah, if only they realized that a word has different meanings in different contexts…”), a sentence in which they would use that word. Staying on topic, here’s a joke:

  • How many translators does it take to change a light bulb?
  • It depends on the context.

So, for translation/interpreting professionals and students, context is extremely important. We can’t read your mind, and guessing possible meanings might lead to making mistakes.

Next conversation:

  • PERSON I’M TALKING TO: “Wow, you study languages! How many do you speak?”
  • ME: “Four: Italian, English, French and some German.”
  • PERSON I’M TALKING TO: “You know only those?” or “Why don’t/didn’t you study Arabic/Chinese/etc?”

You usually study two to three languages at university. It takes a lot of time to learn a language well, let alone two or three. In my opinion, it’s better to know two or three languages at an advanced level than five or six at an elementary level. In this case, quality matters more than quantity but, if you manage to speak five to six languages at an advanced level… well, congratulations!🙂 I chose to study English and French because I like(d) them and I’ve studied them since I started middle school. I can speak them fluently and I’m looking forward to improving more and more. I chose English in particular because it is “my passion, my obsession, my life” (as I wrote on some social networking site). Why should I study languages I’m not interested in learning? It also takes many years and stays abroad to learn languages like Arabic and Chinese well.

If you’re on Twitter, maybe in the last few days you read some tweets on “Tips to date a translator” (or an interpreter). I had tons of fun reading them, and I couldn’t have enough of them, haha. Two words: compulsive reading. You can find all the tweets here.

My favourite ones:

  • Do not take us too literally and always be faithful. @judittur
  • And for God’s sake, spell check your written correspondence. Nothing turns translators off more. @jackiedeal
  • Suggesting Google Translate will replace human translators will lead to you making love *without* human translators. @miguelllorens
  • Resign yourself to this: The woman loudly criticizing the subtitles in the midst of an action movie is your girlfriend. @miguelllorens
  • Don’t brag about your knowledge of a foreign language UNLESS you are really fluent! @avinc1
  • Distract the waiter while your translator friend takes photos of the ill translated menu. @petra_s_ger 
  • We love puns. We LOVE them. If you play on words smartly, you’ll get 100 extra points. ;) @toolupwithwords
  • Don’t be surprised if you buy them chocolates and the 1st thing they do is read the ingredients in all the languages! @Silvia_MediaLoc 
  • Be ready to put up with pointless arguments about grammar and etymology when fellow translators are around. @carlosckw
  • If you ask the translation of a word and she doesn’t know it don’t reply “what kind of translator r u?@Laura_Solana
  • Pour son anniversaire, un bon dictionnaire fera toujours l’affaire. @juliettelemerle

Some blog posts on the same topic:

About Ilaria

I'm an English and French to Italian translator, and I've been a blogger since 2009.
This entry was posted in languages, Translation & Interpreting and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to When Translators (and Language Students) Meet the Rest of the World

  1. Anonimulo says:

    I think you meen *tweets*. A twit is something rather different.😉

  2. Selena says:

    LOL this is so true! Even my family and friends believe I am a living dictionary! It pisses me off! The only one who is able to deal with me is my boyfriend…He’s always making puns and watching subtitled American or English movies or series…and commenting them with me xD Gosh, I turned him into an English lover xD

  3. David Auerbach says:

    Thanks very much. Since I’m obsessive/compulsive: “ill-translated.” Those troublesome premodifier hyphens!

    • ilarys86 says:

      You’re welcome! You’re right, there should have been a hyphen there! Translators definitely should pay attention to details.

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