The often unsung heroes of storytelling, translators are masters of words and culture. Without them, the globalisation of ideas, theories and culture would not be possible.
But how much do we really understand, or even know, about this ancient profession?
In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at the art of translation, from its ancient origins to what’s involved in tackling a piece of text, bringing it to life in another language and for another audience.
The origins of translation
If you were at a pub quiz and heard the question “What was the first piece of text to be translated?”, you’d be forgiven for thinking of The Bible, or the Rosetta Stone.
In fact, the first recorded translation piece is way older than both.
Dating back to 3000 BC, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest recorded instances of translation.
The ancient narrative, inscribed on clay tablets in cuneiform (meaning “wedge form”, due to being composed of marks made with the edges of reeds into wet clay) script, recounts the heroic exploits of Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk.
But the role of first “celebrated” translator belongs to Jerome of Stridon, regarded by the Catholic church as the patron saint of translators.
He started work on translating the Bible in 382 AD, an endeavour that would take him 23 years (he didn’t finish until 405 AD). He began by editing the existing Latin version of the New Testament, but hoping to get a more faithful interpretation by translating directly from the original Hebrew rather than correcting the work already done, he moved to Jerusalem to deepen his cultural understanding of the source context.
The role of culture in translation
Nearly 2,000 years later, with all the advancements in technology that those millenia have brought, modern-day translators are still following in Jerome’s footsteps; often moving countries for periods at a time to truly absorb the culture of a source language country.
Sandra Simões, a Portuguese translator who works with Comtec, says: “Cultural context is inseparable from language work, as even the slightest nuances can significantly impact the accuracy and effectiveness of a translation.” After completing her professional diploma in translation, Sandra stayed on in the UK, living and working in various cities across England and Ireland “eager to absorb languages, cultures, and the true meaning of communication.”
It’s this fine-tuned sense of the target audience that sets translation apart as an art rather than a science.
For some, carrying the literal meaning of something from Language A to Language B might seem like a mechanical swap of words. But for a true translator, there’s much more to it than that.
As Rebecca Schneiders, a professional German translator who works with Comtec, explains: “Cultural context is absolutely essential. I cannot translate a text without considering for whom I translate, and what the social and cultural background is.”
And indeed, not having that awareness can quickly lead to problems.
“In my job, I mostly translate from languages and countries that are not very different from the context I live in, so there might not be that many traps”, says Rebecca. But where it’s more of a cultural jump, translators need to know what they don’t know.
As Rebecca explains: “Recently I translated a text about an initiative in Australia, where schools are trying to embed the native culture a bit more. Not knowing any more about Aborigine culture than the average European, it was extremely interesting to read about the history of the indigenous people and find sensitive language. It’s not only about having an awareness of the readers but also about having awareness of the people the texts are about. How do they identify themselves, how do they refer to themselves, what words are a no-go?”.
Sandra makes a similar point about the challenges of cultural awareness: “I recently collaborated with a food brand from the Asian market. During my research on the ingredients of their products intended for commercialisation in Portugal, I came across an ingredient the consumption of which, although legal, is frowned upon culturally. Recognising the potential implications, the client decided to reconsider their choice of products for that specific market, thereby mitigating potential reputation issues.”
What makes an excellent translator?
Choosing a career as a translator isn’t likely to be motivated by a love of money.
“What would I be if I weren’t a translator? Rich!” jokes Rebecca.
It’s a good joke, not least because the sheer intellectual demand of translating – fluency in two or more languages is just the starting point – makes it a career that combines a huge range of disciplines:
1. Proficiency in languages:
Most translators are fluent in at least two languages. That requires, at a minimum, a degree in a foreign language, and usually a further qualification in Translation Studies or Linguistics.
2. Cultural competence:
As we’ve seen, understanding cultural differences is crucial for accurate translation. A deep understanding of the cultural contexts in both the source and target languages helps convey meaning effectively. It’s the “secret sauce” that can make the difference between good enough and excellence.
3. Research skills:
Translators often encounter unfamiliar terms or concepts. Strong research skills enable them to find accurate and contextually appropriate translations, especially in specialised fields like legal or technical translation.
4. Creative writing skills:
A translator must be an adept writer, capable of producing high-quality texts in the target language that maintain the essence and intent of the original text. The challenge is in matching the style and the essence of the original text and conveying it through the lens of a different audience.
5. Subject matter expertise:
Specialised fields like medical, legal, technical, or literary translation require in-depth knowledge of specific terminologies and industry standards. Often this requires extra, specialised training.
In their own words: Why choose translation as a career?
We asked Rebecca and Sandra what they enjoyed most about their work. Their answers speak to their love for this often overlooked art form.
“I love a challenging creative project, where I can unleash the creative side of me”, says Rebecca. “I love brooding over puns, and it’s extremely satisfying to find “The One” phrase I’ve been looking for for hours or days.”
There’s also the joy of learning, constantly.
“What I also love about my job is that I learn so much. With every project, there are new topics and new things I have to delve into to understand. Gaining more knowledge and never ceasing learning is very rewarding”, says Rebecca.
Sandra explains how continuous professional development is so important for a discipline that evolves as much as language does: “I actively participate in various webinars, courses, and conferences to enhance my knowledge and skills. I love acquiring new insights, whether it be regarding new software, innovative translation approaches, or valuable tips from fellow professionals. Each new piece of knowledge contributes to refining my work and delivering better results.”
Modern controversies and the battle for recognition
Given the enormity and complexity of the work of a professional translator, it’s not surprising there’s been a recent campaign to grant translators more recognition.
In June this year, translator Yilin Wang stated that she had not received acknowledgement or compensation for her translations of Qiu Jin’s work displayed in the British Museum’s exhibition, “China’s Hidden Century”.
The British Museum have since offered reimbursement (all £150 of it) and an apology, but this rings hollow to Wang, who told the Guardian: “Translation is an art, and it takes me just as long to translate a poem as it takes for me to write an original one in English. I have to work hard to research the poet, the times they’re living in, and the literary forms they’re working in, then find creative ways to convey the spirit of their work in English.”
In the literary world, translators such as Jennifer Croft went as far as to refuse projects unless her name went on the front cover of the published book. It worked; PanMcMillan was the first publisher in 2021 to announce that translators would be named on book covers and in all promotional materials.
The future of translation
With all the rapid advancements technology is bringing to this industry, it’s easy to get caught up in the “AI to the rescue” sentiment, and believe that much of the work of a translator can be automated.
But, as we recently discussed in another blog, there are plenty of intricacies to this type of work that make it intrinsically human.
To be as curious, as aware, of the intrinsic differences in people is what makes the difference between a literal, mechanical translation and one that genuinely contributes to a global building of ideas and concepts. It’s the culmination of all of these qualities – awareness, curiosity, diligence – that makes the work of a professional translator so valuable, and so difficult for AI to truly match.
It’s difficult to imagine a ChatGPT or other LLM solution being so finely attuned to such a wide variety of considerations, be they cultural, commercial or legal.
Rebecca agrees: “I see that AI linguistics is the path forward, but it will still take humans to deliver really high quality and appealing translations, at least for the next few years.”
Looking for a world-class translator?
Founded by linguists, we handpick the translators we work with and, like them, love the challenge of a creative or linguistic problem.
We only work with in-market linguists, as we understand just how critical that “hands-on” piece of the puzzle is in securing success for our partners.
As Sandra explains: “I particularly enjoy corporate projects, such as business briefs, HR material, internal communications, etc. I find that in this area, cultural context plays a pivotal role, and my expertise, gained from living and immersing myself in the corporate world across different countries, enables me to make a substantial contribution towards achieving better outcomes.”
Get in touch today to find out how we can help you bring your translation project to life.
Our thanks to:
Our thanks to Sandra and Rebecca for their interviews with us in researching this article.
Sandra Simões is an experienced Portuguese translator/language specialist with a solid career of over 20 years, operating both in the public (governmental bodies, universities) and private (from major multinational brands to smaller companies looking to expand their market base) sectors.
Rebecca Schneiders is a professional German translator who works with English, Spanish and Italian. Her love of languages started with the children’s books her mother used to read to her as a little girl and has carried her to a career covering IT, Marketing, Tech and Literary translations, among others.