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The Role of the Translator
Translators are language professionals. They are applied linguists, competent writers, diplomats, and educated amateurs. Like linguists, translators have to be capable of discerning subtleties and nuances in their languages, researching terminology and colloquialisms, and handling new developments in their languages. Like writers, translators have to be accustomed to working long hours alone on a subject which interests few people and with a language that few people around them know. Like diplomats, translators have to be sensitive to the cultural and social differences which exist in their languages and be capable of addressing these issues when translating. And like educated amateurs, translators have to know the basics and some of the details about the subjects they deal with.
The above is an idealization of the translator, an image which professional translators aspire to and achieve with varying degrees of success. Not all translators need to overflow with these qualities. They must, however, have them in sufficient measure to be able to translate their material in a manner acceptable to their clients.
Somewhere in the process of translating, the translator will come across all these issues. When I work with technical or medical documents, I have to deal with the intricacies of technical writing in Japanese and English and research new or obscure terms (and sometimes invent my own). I struggle with my English to polish and hone it so that the client sees the material as natural, without the tell-tale signs that it was translated from Japanese. I deal with the differences between Japanese and American culture, especially when I translate computer manuals. We give instructions and explanations in the U.S. very differently from how people give them in Japan.
Like any professional, translators have to stay on top of their areas of expertise. I devote a lot of my time to browsing through magazines like "PC Magazine", "MacWorld", "Scientific American", "The Journal of the American Medical Association", and the "New England Journal of Medicine" as well as reading numerous books on developments in medicine and computer science.
The fundamental rule when you’re not sure of a term or phrase is ask. When you have doubts or questions about a translation, call the client, ask your question, and then get the answer. If you’re still not sure, make a note of it in the final translation. Clients are surprisingly tolerant of such notes and often expect them. I’ve even heard that clients are sometimes suspicious when they don’t see these notes. After all, how much can a translator know about new surgical procedures to clear a pulmonary embolism?
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