Translation Myth #3

The Translation Myth Series Myth #3: Bidirectional Translating is the Norm

Here’s the third myth in my Translation Myth series.

And that myth is the following:

Translating from language A to language B is the same as translating from language B to language A.

This was drilled into my head from day one when I started my translation degree program in college.

“You’re a native English speaker. You should translate into Spanish. You can’t translate the other direction.”

The myth is that many translation clients think that all translators have the ability to translate both directions.

This is simply not the case.

In fact, most translators are unable to translate to the same degree in both directions.

Native Speaker Principle

Now, before I talk more about this myth, it’s imperative that I mention the Native Speaker Principle.

What is the Native Speaker Principle?

The Native Speaker Principle is the idea that you are never going to be as fluent in your second language as you are in your native language.

For most translators, this principle holds true.

Most people are not as good going from their second language to their native language as they are going from their native language to their second language.

A lot of translators don’t grow up in a bilingual environment where they are learning and speaking two languages at the same level.

Translation Clients and Misconceptions

Even though translating from A to B is going to be different than translating from B to A, clients don’t realize or recognize that.

Translation clients think that translators are able to go between both languages no matter the direction.

Why do most clients (especially new clients) think this?

I have no idea.

Maybe early translators in the days of Saint Jerome were able to translate in and out of languages with ease.

Maybe they were better translators than us.

Maybe translators have been too liberal about claiming their translation abilities.

In the end, though, the reason doesn’t matter.

What matters is that this is the client’s perception.

And that perception can cause problems if not addressed at the beginning of a client/translator relationship, especially when expectations are laid out for both sides.

My Translation Experience

When I first started translating, I was in my second year of college.

I had taken a couple of years off and learned Spanish, spending time in Ecuador to perfect my Andean accent.

When I came back and enrolled in a Spanish Translation program, I figured I should get a job where I could continue to use my Spanish.

I wanted to be able to maintain my second language by doing more than just going to class and reading Lazarillo de Tormes.

So I found a job as an Americorps volunteer working at a local medical practice that primarily served poor Spanish-speaking clients.

The place was called Mountainlands.

Translation Myth #3
The famous location where I was dissed because of my looks and where I first learned about Translation Myth #3.

It was great for me because I was able to use my Spanish in a hands-on way.

(Although that job marked the beginning of the metamorphosis of my Spanish from Andean purity to a hybrid mix of Mexican/Andean Spanish that I love.)

I was doing most (if not all) of the translation and interpretation work, as well as direct client work.

Everything at the job was great. Until it wasn’t.

That’s because the program manager I worked for decided to hire a Mexican-American girl that didn’t speak either language all that well.

Now, it wasn’t her lack of language skills that bothered me.

Rather, it was the fact that only because she had a Mexican name and looked more Hispanic than me (white/blonde/blue eyes), the program manager decided that she should be responsible for all the language work.

All the language work.

That meant she was doing not only the direct client work, but the translation work as well.

And not to sound bitter, but I was at the time.

Especially because she did a horrible job at the translation work.

The program manager set us both up for failure because she believed that someone that speaks both languages fluently (kind of) and is from a certain culture, should automatically be able to translate professionally.

I’d like to say that the program manager figure it out and changed things around.

But she didn’t.

She couldn’t (and wouldn’t) understand what I was trying to tell her about Translation Myth #3.

Not too long afterwards, I quit.

Not because of this episode. Mostly it was just because my Americorps contract ran out.

But I did feel bad that in the end, the clients, the people that needed the information the most, suffered because of the misconceptions of a program manager that didn’t try to understand.

So there you have it.

Translation Myth #3 in action.

Don’t let it get you.

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