What Translators Do

What Do Translators Do?

Watch this nice two-minute video, “A Day in the Life of a Translator or Interpreter.”

In case you’d like to know more, here are a few basic facts about the work of translators:

The Process of Translation

Contrary to what many people imagine, the process of translating is not simply a matter of replacing individual words in one language with clear equivalents in another. Each language has its own ways of organizing information and ideas, and its own grammatical structures and idiomatic usages. Sometimes a sentence comes out much longer or shorter in translation than in the original text. One way I can describe the process is that I “translate” a sentence in German or Russian into meaning in my mind, and then “translate” that meaning into a sentence or two in English. Typically there are multiple ways to render that same meaning into English―an important part of a translator’s job is to select the words and sentence structure to best represent that same meaning in the target language, taking into account what has been said in earlier sentences, the audience, and the desired style for the text. And, of course, the translation needs to sound native, as if it had been written originally in English.

Translators generally take several passes through a text. Some of us read a text in its entirety before writing anything. I usually go through a text two or three times: To translate it, to check and edit it, and to proofread it in English and make sure it sounds natural.

an inside look at a translation from Russian to English

Working at a Computer

Translators work at a computer: no surprise there. These days I travel a lot, so I use a laptop. But I also need my 15.5” external monitor―translators need plenty of screen space, because we typically need many programs and windows open at the same time for our work:

  • online dictionaries and other references
  • glossaries of relevant terminology
  • other reference materials for the project
  • our ongoing notes on the project
  • the source text itself
  • a browser, with maybe twenty tabs open

One special kind of software that translators use is something we call a “CAT tool,” a computer-assisted translation program. In it, a translator sees a sentence and types a translation for it. The program helps the translator in various ways: For example, it shows:

  • similar sentences the translator has translated in the past
  • machine-translation results for the sentence
  • glossary terms occurring in the sentence

When the translator finishes a project, she or he uses the CAT tool to generate a new file just like the original one but with everything translated. I mostly use CAT tools called OmegaT, Wordfast, and sometimes a web-based tool called SmartCat. Some of the other popular programs out there are MemoQ, Phrase, and Trados. Most of these programs are very complex and cost hundreds of dollars.

​Up toward the right you see a project I was working on with OmegaT on my laptop. The built-in monitor is below and the external monitor is above it.​

Below you can see a window spread of everything that I had open at one moment while working on a project with MemoQ. That was on my desktop computer with a 24” monitor plus a smaller monitor to the left.

a translator's work, behind the scenes

More Work Behind the Scenes

While we’re not working on paid translation projects for our clients, we translators are still busy: We spend time on bookkeeping and invoicing, marketing, tweaking and learning new features of our software, chatting with colleagues, and on professional development: We read to practice our source languages, we study to learn more in our specialty fields, and we take webinars, video courses, and workshops in order to attain our best as translators.