The Myth of the Top 10 Translation Myths

Years ago I built a site specifically for Spanish translators.

That site was my first attempt at building an online presence where I could share my insights on translation.

It worked okay but there were a lot of things I messed up on.

I eventually ended up scrapping that site and started TranslationRules as a new and improved website that could really help all beginning translators break their way into the translation industry with help.

Well, back when I had that site, I published a list of the top 10 translation myths that I had dealt with as a translator.

The list went somewhat viral, having been picked up by a fair amount of language-related blogs like:

It was even referenced in a Portuguese Internship Report (Relatório de Estágio) written for a public university in Portugal.

You can read what I posted at any of those sites, so there’s no use reposting the same thing here.

The reason I bring this up, though, is because I wrote those myths a while ago, around 2006.

And while they are still valid, I cringe every time I read them.


Because I was whining when I wrote them.

I was doing what I now can’t stand.

Complaining about things instead of working to fix things and make them better for myself.

Oh, whoa is me. My potential clients don’t understand how awesome I am as a translator. They don’t respect me like they should.

I’m going to cry about it and then write about it. That’ll show them.

Uh, no. That’s not how life works.

I can see that now.

I hope you can, too.

So instead of rehashing those same myths verbatim, I’d like to turn around the narrative a little bit.

Those translation myths might not be the absolute reality. But, they are the perceived reality of a lot of clients.

And perceived reality is sometimes
more real than actual reality.

But instead of crying about it, we’re going to use that perceived reality as an advantage. I’m going to show you how you can use those “misunderstandings” or “myths” to bolster your translation success.

1. Embrace Your Bilingualism

Face it, if you weren’t bilingual, you couldn’t translate. You have to have at least a working knowledge of two distinct languages to be a translator.

Do you advertise your bilingualism to relevant clients?

Many translators get hung up on the semantics of language-related terms.

“I’m not truly bilingual because blah, blah, blah.”

Guess what? Your client doesn’t care that you define bilingualism different than she does. She just knows what she knows. And if you are hesitant to claim you are bilingual (or heaven forbid, trilingual) because you’re worried about linguistic anal-retentive types complaining, you’re not going to get the job.

Speak the language your clients speak.

They’re the ones paying you.

2. Subject Matter Expertise is Overblown

Sure, knowledge of the subject matter of a project is important.

But just because you didn’t get a PhD in microbiology doesn’t mean you can’t adequately translate an article about it.

One of my longest standing translation jobs was for an Indian guy who lived in Canada. He owned a company that imported industrial chemicals to Latin America.

He needed emails translated.

He also needed Material Safety Data Sheets translated for potential customers in Mexico, Colombia, and Ecuador.

Last time I checked, I didn’t have a degree in chemistry.

Hell, the only chemistry class I ever took was in 10th grade where a friend of mine decided to poison the class fish by dumping a load of liquid hand soap in the tank.

But just because I didn’t have an intimate knowledge of chemical compounds didn’t stop me from translating that material effectively.

I learned what I needed to know and delivered what the customer wanted and needed.

3. Be Comfortable Going Both Ways

Most translators are naturally stronger translators going in a specific direction.

I translate best from Spanish to English.

English is my native language. I learned Spanish later in life. It makes sense that most of my time translating has been spent going one way.

But I’ve never automatically written off translating the other direction.

In fact, I’ve translated a fair share of documents from Spanish to English.

(Can you hear that collective gasp from the purists?!)

It’s true.

And guess what? I’m still alive to talk about it.

If you only like to translate one way, that’s fine. Keep it that way.

But if you are only translating in one direction because you think that’s what “good translators” are supposed to do, it’s time to break the rules.

If you can go both ways, go both ways.

It’s your business. Conduct it how you want.

4. Understand the Value of Your Time

You are a business.

You need to treat yourself like you would treat a business.

That means that time is money.

If people need your time, they need to spend the money.

This is especially true with rush jobs.

If you want to do a favor to a client by taking on a job with a quick turn-around, fine. That’s your deal.

But don’t be afraid to explain to your client that you’ve got other clients higher on the immediate priority list and if you were to drop them for a new rush job, they would take the hit.

And in order for them not to take a hit, you’re going to have to work outside your normal routine. And that’s going to cost extra.

5. Remember the Myth of the Native Language Principle

Read the article. That’s it.

6. Don’t Worry About What has Already Happened

I remember having a discussion in a translation class at college one time.

It centered around what to do if a client changed your translation after you delivered it.

The teacher outlined various steps a translator could take to make sure that this didn’t happen and that the translator wouldn’t be liable for the changes.

You know what I think now?

Who cares?

Guess what? Once you give your translation back to the client, it’s his. He can do whatever he wants with it.

He can screw it up completely and change the whole thing.

It’s still not your problem.

And if you’re worried about liability, then make sure you keep a copy of every translation you give to a client.

You should be doing that anyway.

7. Formal Memberships Don’t Matter; Mentorship Does

It doesn’t matter if you’re a member of a professional translation organization.

There are hundreds of them.

They can offer a service to some freelance translators, but most people I’ve talked to find that the membership costs (both financial and “continuing education”) are too high for what they actually get out of the organizations.

So don’t feel like you have to be a member of one of them in order to be a “legitimate” translator.

It’s simply not the case.

These organizations are not gatekeepers for your success.

Instead of worrying about them, focus instead on finding mentors that can help you achieve success as a freelance translator.

This is especially true if you’re just starting out and trying to figure out how to become successful as a translator.

Getting real-life advice from trusted mentors will be much better than being a card-carrying member of an official translator organization.

8. Acquire More Skills

Back in the day, translators only had to translate in order to make money.

When I started, all I knew was that I needed to focus on translating if I wanted to be successful.

That’s no longer the case.

It’s a myth.

If you want to be successful, you need to acquire more skills than just translation.

Sure, you might not become an interpreter, but you should be looking at ways to increase your skills and figure out what you can do to offer more value to your clients.

If your source language is good enough, maybe think about beefing up your copywriting skills.

Or maybe your web design skills.

Sure, you don’t have to. But if you want to be the translator that clients go to when they need more than just a translation, then you’re going to have to improve your resume.

9. Give

As a translator, you shouldn’t have to give your work away.

You also shouldn’t sell yourself short by doing translations for less than you’re willing to accept just because “that’s the current market rate.”

At the same time, though, don’t be afraid to provide translation services to worthy causes that need your expertise, even if you don’t get a monetary reward.

I started writing about translation and how beginners can become successful freelance translators because I wanted to give back.

That’s OK to do. Find out how you can give back.

10. Set Your Own Price

Speaking of getting paid for your work, make sure you set your own price and stick with it.

If a client is not willing to pay you what you’re worth, don’t worry about it. Forget that client and move on to another one.

Don’t feel like you have to work for peanuts just to become successful.

Work for what you’re worth.

The rest will follow.

1 thought on “The Myth of the Top 10 Translation Myths”

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