What? You don’t know how to say “help”?

June 19, 2012 // From our blog »

When you study a foreign language you soon realize that it is impossible to know all the words in that language, or in any language for that matter. In fact, you become aware of all the words you don’t know in your own language. If you are passionate about learning you will try to learn as many words as you can but you will always be reminded of all those words you don’t know. However, many people never stumble upon this issue. Those people – who may be your siblings, friends, partners – may ask you: “Hey, you speak Spanish, how do you say “help” in Spanish? You will probably find yourself answering something like, “What do you want to say?” or, “Give me the complete sentence” or the famous, “In what context?”. To your surprise, you get a suspicious look implying that you don’t really speak Spanish if you don’t know how to say a simple word like “help”. At first I used to explain that meaning is not something fixed, that is, a word can mean different things in different contexts. And connotation is important, you may be implying something you didn’t intend to if you choose the wrong word. After some time and great energy spent explaining all this, I decided to go with the easy: “help”= “ayudar,” though I knew I could be way off and my friend could end up telling her Spanish friends at a cocktail party to “Provide assistance to some delicious humus” instead of “Help yourself…”. I even get the chills when I think of the “havoc” this might have caused.
Now, as a professional translator, I am constantly reminded of that experience. Much like my friend who was looking for a simple and direct answer to her translation question, clients need fast and easy solutions. However, translators need to know detailed information to provide an accurate quote and a top-quality translation. When clients call you up to ask for a quote, they usually provide the basics of the project: two pages, for tomorrow. Two pages in a day is certainly not much, although knowing the length of those pages is crucial in determining the time needed to translate them. Say you get the exact word count from the client –which is usually not the case- you still needs the specifics. So you ask about the subject matter, the audience, where and how the text will be used, etc.. And if you have a chance to see your client’s face, you get the same suspicious look you get when your friends think you don’t know how to say a simple word like “help”.
How could I explain my reasons? Why do I need so much information? Well, let’s say you go to the doctor or, even better, you call your doctor up and tell her you have a stomachache. Would you expect her to simply prescribe XX? I bet you wouldn’t. What you actually expect -aside from the obvious, “You need to make an appointment to see the doctor” from the receptionist, is a handful of questions and requests for precise information: “Where is your pain?, How bad is it?, How long does it last?, Is it constant or intermittent?” and much more. This is standard practice and anyone would be outraged if doctors just diagnosed and treated without requiring any information. The same goes for many other professions. Although your health might not be at risk, professionals in all fields need specific data to perform their work to the highest standards. And translating is no exception. It is all about information and not all of it is in the text.

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