Aren’t translators just people who speak more than one language?

The answer is obviously, no. Being bilingual or multilingual is not the only skill that professional translators have. They also have many competencies that help them correctly translate the meaning of one text into another language and ensure that the target text readers are able to understand the content. Many translators are specialized in areas such as medical, technical, or legal which allows the translator to become experts in their fields. In the following, we explain the qualities of a professional translator and why it is important to undergo special training.

Speakers of several languages

In a lot of cases, people who speak more than one language may not have learned their second language because they are interested in languages or in a formal setting. Many people learn a second language out of need. For example, migrants or refugees that move to new countries must learn the language spoken in their new home. A lot of the time, their communication skills in this new language will be developed just enough to allow them to communicate on a daily basis but won’t allow them to have deep conversations or understand difficult concepts.

Other people are bilingual because their parents or family members are migrants and they learn their native language at the same time as the language spoken in the region where they grow up. These people are called heritage speakers. They don’t have an education in the language that they speak at home or in their native language, but they can speak colloquially with family members. They go to school to learn their second language in a formal setting and will therefore have a better command of this second language than their native language. Some may even consider their native language to be the one that they speak in school.

Many bilinguals who learn a language in an informal setting may not have a full grasp of grammar concepts and the way they write will be based on verbal language and not a formal written language. They may pick up on bad language habits such as saying “ain’t” or “gonna” and not realize that there are words and expressions that are appropriate while speaking orally but that are not appropriate in written language.

Professional translators

This is not to say that these two types of bilinguals cannot be translators, quite the opposite! These bilinguals have a leg up on people who learn a second language in a classroom setting because they have lived in or have contact with the two different cultures. They can become translators with a formal education and training in translation.

Professional translators have studied different languages in school or through extracurricular language classes and also have a degree or certificate in translation. Translation classes will prepare translators with the right tools and techniques to become professionals. These classes can share specific knowledge such as watching out for “false friends” when translating from one language to another. False friends are words that look the same in two languages but have different meanings. There are many false friends in languages that have similar roots, such as in Latin, English, and French.

For example:

Actuellement, a French word that looks like the word actually in English, really means currently or in the present.

Raisin, which looks like raisin in English, really means grape.

Chair, which looks like chair in English, really means flesh.

Another important technique that translation students learn is localisation. There are often texts that have culturally inherent aspects that cannot be translated word for word into the target language because it will make no sense. This is especially true for idioms or culture-specific jokes.

For example:

In Spanish, the phrase encontrar tu media naranja translated literally means to find your orange half. In reality, it means to find your soulmate or your life partner.

The phrase ser pan comido translated literally means to be eaten bread. In reality, it means that something is easy or is a piece of cake.

These are just a couple of examples, but you get the idea that without proper education, many words and meanings can get lost in translation. This is why translators study languages for many years to master grammar concepts, idiomatic expressions, and word connotations so that when they become translators, they will have a better understanding of these concepts and be able to correctly translate them. Being bilingual is not the only requirement for becoming a language translator, there is a lot more that goes into translation than just simple word recognition.

If you require professional translations, please contact us by e-mail at or call us at +33 1 76 43 32 76.


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