I just read a story in an online newspaper about translation.
I swear I’ve seen this same story a thousand times.
And for some reason it’s always Chinese to English translation.
Someone writes a news article poking fun at all the mistranslations in China of Chinese to English signs, menus, posters, instructions, etc.
Everyone laughs at how bad those translators must be and that their English must be so poor to come up with the translations that they do.
Then would-be translators start to think:
“If those translations are so bad, China must be in need of Chinese to English translators.”
“I know Chinese,” they say. “I’ll move to China, advertise my Chinese-to-English translation services, and I’ll be rich in no time!”
What they don’t realize is this: they are not the first person to ever think of that. And believe it or not, there are plenty of stories of people thinking the exact same thing.
They move to China, try to become Chinese to English translators, and fail.
And it’s not just China.
This happens throughout the world in different countries with different languages. However, the outcome is often the same.
Why is that?
This is the reason (and it’s what a lot of would-be or new translators tend to miss):
As a translator, you don’t dictate the market for your services. Your client doesn’t dictate the market for your services.
As translators, we often get caught up in the idea that our skills are needed by everyone and that when we see translation mistakes, to us it makes sense that the person asking for that translation to be done (the client) would want to have the best translation available.
We can’t comprehend anything but that possibility.
However, that’s not reality in a lot of places. And that’s especially true in China, if you believe what a lot of freelance translators have told me about their experiences there.
The Public Determines Translation Demand
This is the truth that you need to remember as a freelance translator.
You don’t decide who wants or needs words to be translated.
Your clients even don’t determine what should or shouldn’t be translated.
It’s the public that decides.
People using services and signs and posters and menus decide, usually through market-driven forces, that words need to be translated.
And understanding that can have a great impact on whether or not you succeed in a certain location as a freelance translator.
There is a reason why China has a lot of “interesting” English translations and why they’re not “fixed” to conform to standard English.
Sure, you and I might care.
Especially if we live in or visit China and are trying to get around.
But the local population doesn’t care enough about it to make it worth anyone’s while.
The Chinese-to-English translations that are produced are good enough for the majority of the people and so there is no real incentive to make any sort of change to the translations.
I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned it in other places on the website, but I’ll mention it here again in case I didn’t.
Sometimes good enough is really good enough.
As translators and language lovers, a lot of times we want perfection.
But sometimes perfection isn’t what the client wants.
Or in this case, it isn’t what the public is looking for. Instead, the public is looking for something that is good enough.
And that’s what you get the translations you do in places like China.
(Now, I’m not picking on China per se, because as I said, I’ve seen this phenomenon in other countries. It’s just that China for some reason always seems to get the bad rap in these new articles and media spots talking about bad translations.)
So, if you’re a translator, don’t automatically assume that just because a country or community or segment of the population uses bad translations that they will welcome you with open arms (and open wallets) to correct all their errors and mistranslations.
What that means is that you might be disillusioned when you try to offer translation services to people that don’t really want them or need them.
More often than not, the reason those translations are there in the first place is because they’re good enough.
And sometimes, as a freelance translator, you just can’t compete with good enough.
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