How not to translate: snippets of conversation overheard on public transport

“It’s so boring and takes so much time!” after hearing this confession about translation made by a young trainee somewhere in a tram in one of the biggest cities in Poland, my blood started to boil.

A young man was complaining to his friend about a new task that his international company assigned to him recently: translation from English to Polish. The poor guy had no experience in translation, nor in any translation tools. All he possessed was only a “good command of the English language” as he nicely put it on his CV, apart from many other skills and qualities he needed for his actual job. But smart companies know how to use their trainees in order to save on professional translators. They ask those with the “good command of the X language” to do           a “small translation job”, put them in front of a tiny screen with an Excel file and connection to the Internet and hope for the best results. And the results are usually far from “the best”.

 What I heard further from the frustrated trainee met in the tram, frustrated me even more:

“So, they give me all these English texts in Excel and I have to translate in the columns, and switch between the windows. It’s very boring and not comfortable, the text is so small and it takes me a lot of time. How can I translate like this? Oh, how I wish they gave me a real job.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Stop                                                                                                            (Photo by D. Pawlak)

 I was just about to turn from a silent random listener into an active defender of the translation industry, when the young man got off the tram and disappeared in the crowd. And he left me rooted to the spot and puzzling over this situation. What we see here is the common misconception of what professional and high quality translation really entails. You can’t assign translation tasks to someone with no experience or education in translation, just because he or she claims to know the language. Saving on translation costs will work against you sooner or later. Similarly, you can’t accept any translation tasks if you claim it’s boring, if you don’t know how technology (e.g. CAT tools) can help you work more efficiently, or if your translation strategy is just going line by line and changing the words, without looking at the meaning, structure, style and other necessary factors. If you deal in this way, no wonder that translation appears to you as a mundane task that can’t be described as a “real job”.

I don’t use public transport in Poland very often, as I travel there about a few times per year, so I am not sure, if conversations about translation led by non-professional translators are very common in these circumstances. But even if they aren’t, I am sure that practices described above are widely spread and it will take a lot of time to clear up the misconceptions about translation, popular both among companies and wannabe translators.


Dorota helps digital brands infuse their content with a local touch. She is a localization consultant, translator specialized in IT, prompt engineer, and a book author. Dorota teaches online courses on localization, writes for her blog and a Medium publication. She also runs a Small Biz AI, a Substack newsletter for freelancers and small business owners ready to discover handy AI tools.

Leave a comment