Why good translators ask questions

Question markCuriosity has always been a virtue when it comes to translation. After all, it’s a profession that attracts many a talented linguist with an inquisitive mind motivated by the daily challenge of finding le mot juste. To find the right words for each translation, translators work with a range of terminology resources, such as dictionaries, glossaries and text corpora. They also research the subject matter of the texts they translate through various channels such as the Internet, books and journals. Yet, despite these resources, there are times when a translator might need to ask you questions about the text that he or she is translating for you – and that’s usually a good sign. Here are a few reasons why.

It could be that the text you are having translated contains terminology unique to your organisation. Acronyms are a case in point. Common acronyms, such as GDP, FIFO and IPO, rarely present a problem. But, if your text contains acronyms that are used exclusively within your organisation, chances are that the translator will need to ask what these mean in order to come up with appropriate ways of translating them.

If your organisation operates in a niche area, it’s likely there will be a number of highly specialised terms and concepts relating to your work. Before deciding how best to translate these for the benefit of your target readership, the translator might need to clarify the exact meaning of certain terms and concepts in the context of your organisation’s activities. By taking this approach, potential misunderstandings can be avoided.

Sometimes, a translator will also want to get in touch if there are various viable options for translating a key term. For example, the German term “Fracht” can be translated into English as “freight” or “cargo”. When handling, say, the translation of a corporate brochure for a logistics company, a translator might want to ask which option the client prefers.

Another possibility could be that the text to be translated appears to contain a mistake, such as a typo or a missing word. Where this is the case, a reliable translator will check what the author actually meant to say rather than hazard a guess in the translation.

In a nutshell, a good translator will carefully read your text, and, if something isn’t clear, he or she will ask. Translators earn their living by communicating messages from one language into another as effectively as possible but, ultimately, no one knows what you want to say better than you do. That’s why it’s definitely worth making yourself – or, if necessary, someone else in your organisation – available to answer questions from the translator while your text is being translated. By asking questions to clarify any relevant points in your text, a translator can ensure that the message conveyed by the translation is precisely the message you want to get across to your audience.

Curious to learn more about the virtues of asking – and answering – questions? Ask us!

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