Four common misconceptions about translation

What is translation, exactly?

It’s easy to think of translation as the literal association of each word in a text with its equivalent in the translated language. Unfortunately, or fortunately for the diversity of cultures and worldviews, this is not the case at all. Goodbye, generic dictionary and automatic translation software…

In reality, translation consists of understanding the meaning of a text – with its specific purpose, style, domain, readership, etc. – and rendering it as a text with an equivalent meaning that produces the same result for the target readership. This means understanding ambiguities, wordplay, cultural references and turn of phrase effects, as well as technical vocabulary, typographic and stylistic conventions (think of the way contracts are worded) and the target readership. For example, how might the tone vary between texts intended for industry professionals, teenagers, cancer patients, or the attendees of a cultural event?

Preconceived ideas and pitfalls to avoid for quality translations

1/ “A bilingual person can produce a good translation”

First of all, not just anyone can call themselves bilingual. True bilinguals are quite rare: they are people who have grown up in a dual culture, and have an equivalent level of proficiency in two languages, both of which are considered to be their mother tongues. But while it’s true that mastery of a foreign language is a prerequisite for a good translator, it’s not enough. A good translator is first and foremost someone who is qualified, who does the job for a living, and who has practical experience. Also, he or she is able to respect the meaning of the source while expressing it clearly in the target language, in the appropriate style and according to the appropriate conventions, using turns of phrase and/or technical vocabulary specific to the field and suitable for the target audience. Remember: knowing how to write doesn’t make you a writer…

2/ “An English-French translator can translate into both languages.”

Very rarely. On the other hand, this is what an interpreter does, hence the confusion. Translating and interpreting are two different professions: translators write, interpreters speak. Some linguists are translators AND interpreters, but the skills required for these two activities are quite different. Whereas the interpreter translates in the moment, and can reformulate a phrase in the event of misunderstanding, the translator’s job is to render the original text as accurately as possible, working on the assumption that each word has been carefully chosen and has its own importance. The translation must show the same level of mastery as the original, which is why professionals only translate into their mother tongue. While the interpreter can easily be forgiven for a little clumsiness in speaking the foreign language, the translator’s written work must be flawless, especially when it is destined for wide publication.

3/ “A good translator can translate anything.”

Unfortunately not. This would be a bit like asking an IT specialist to write a legal document, or a marketing professional to write a technical manual. A good translator is someone who knows his or her customer’s industry and profession, knows how to talk to professionals on an equal footing, and understands what he or she is reading, down to the smallest detail. Such mastery is essential in order to provide a quality service.

 4/ “Machine translation engines can translate into any language.”

Everyone has heard of Google Translate, Microsoft Translator, DeepL and more recently ChatGPT. In the last few years, these tools have made great strides forward thanks to artificial intelligence, and can help translators to do their job, without replacing them. However, they cannot replace the guidance and advice of a translation agency, nor the knowledge and cultural sensitivity of a native translator.

translator will be specialized in his or her field, whereas a machine translation engine will simply have access to a set of terms from texts, which it will render in context. However, these terms may not be the most widely used, or their usage may be specific to their original context. Even if machine translation engines are a great help today, human intervention is still absolutely necessary .


At Birdwell, all our translators and interpreters are long-established professionals, specializing in various fields such as: digital marketing, internal communications, labor law, medical devices, workplace safety, hydroelectric power plants, medical research, mobile applications, etc.

To find out more, contact us!

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