The Translation Myth Series Myth #2: Translators Can Translate Any Topic

All translators say they hate translation myths.

But we also secretly love them, because they give us something to complain about.

I’ve already written about the first myth: Translators Charge Too Much

Now it’s time to look at the second myth translators have to deal with.

A translator can translate any subject matter as long as the material is in a language he knows.

While the last myth really only applied to brand new clients who know absolutely nothing about the translation industry, this one is different.

Long-time users and clients of translators will continue to fall victim to this myth.

I’m not really sure why that is.

I don’t know remember anything I learned in high school about biology.

If someone asked me to give a presentation or lecture on genetics, I would fail.

I would need a lot of time and even more resources to put something together.

And that’s doing it in my own native language.

Now imagine trying to that with a language that is not your native tongue.

That’s going to be difficult.

My Experience With Translating

I’m pretty sure I’ve shared this experience before.

But it bears repeating again.

I had been translating for a few years or so and got a translation request through email.

The job was actually legit.

It was a guy that lived in the southern U.S. and he owned a business felling trees.

He needed some material translated into Spanish and wanted a request for how much I would charge him to solve his problem.

I told him I couldn’t give him a quote right away because I needed to know more about what kind of material he wanted me to translate.

So I asked for some sample material.

He sent me some of what he wanted translated. He might as well have asked to have something translated from Farsi to Spanish.

The language was in English, sure, but I did not understand any of it.

Sure, I could have tried to translate it, but in the end, two things would have happened:

  1. It would have taken me way too long to translate it. There’s no way that it would have been cost effective for me. I would have spent so much time on it, trying to first understand the English and then trying to get it into Spanish, that I would have lost a ton of money on the job.
  2. I would have done a crappy job on the translation. We translators have a big ego sometimes, thinking that our translations are the best every. In reality, we’re like everyone else. We try to do the best we can, but sometimes the end result just isn’t as awesome as we would like. That’s OK. It happens. But it’s not OK if I know going into something that it’s going to turn out like crap. That does a disservice to me, and more importantly, a huge disservice to the client.

Only two types of translators think that they can translate anything thrown their way: Inexperienced translators and desperate translators.

So you should avoid being either one.

How do you avoid being an inexperienced translator?


Plain and simple.

You’ve got to have time in the business, time dealing with clients, time knowing what you feel comfortable with and what you should pass on.

Time actually doing the job of being a freelance translator.

Notice that time spent thinking about translating, or dreaming about becoming a translator, does not count.

You can’t just think about going through the motions.

You can’t just hope that you’ll be a translator some day.

You have to actually do.

Call potential clients.

Market yourself on Linkedin.

Translate under a deadline.

Make things right with a customer.

That experience will then also teach you that you have limits. And that you should respect those limits.

What about being desperate?

We’ve all been desperate.

Everyone knows what it means to be worried.

And most people, when confronted with that worried desperation, do one of two things.

Either they stop moving and die.

Or they become willing to do something so irrational that it ends up hurting them even more in the end.


If you’re a desperate translator, you are going to resort to taking on jobs that are above your ability.

You’ll hurt your bottom line because it’ll take too long to translate to make it worth it financially.

And you’ll hurt your reputation when you end up delivering an inferior product.

Don’t be like inexperienced translator.

And don’t be like desperate translator.

Until next time.

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