The Art of Translation: Beyond Words and Syntax

5 Reasons Being Bilingual Doesn’t Make You a Translator

Being bilingual is an amazing skill to possess, however, knowing a language and being able to translate it are very different things.

An open mouth with a person trapped behind bars inside showing that being bilingual does not make you a translator or language service provider.

Without a doubt, being able to converse in more than one language is a valuable skill. However, a common misconception prevails that being bilingual or multilingual automatically qualifies one as a language translator or professional translation partner.  

For some very basic situations, this may serve to get simple messages across, but professional translators possess a very specific set of skills that go far beyond just knowing another language. Let’s take a brief look at what makes them so irreplaceable.  


1. Translation in a Nutshell 

Language is more than a mere tool for communication. It can embody a culture, represent a thought process, and act as a vehicle for deep emotional expression. Consequently, language translators need to have a profound understanding of the cultures related to the languages they work with. This understanding transcends the literal meaning of words; understanding the broader context of the country involved (including history, politics, culture, worldviews, religious beliefs, etc.) is imperative for accurate translation. 

Consider idioms, for instance. A direct translation of an idiom from one language into another is unlikely to convey the intended meaning in the target language. Oftentimes, they are totally and completely non-sensical. Translators need to grasp the underlying meaning and intention so that they can express it appropriately in the target language.  

Let’s take the French idiom avaler des couleuvres. 

The literal English translation of this phrase would be to swallow grass snakes, which is bizarre at best and intensely bad advice at worst.  

However, seasoned translators know that this funny sequence of words is actually trying to imply the following meanings –  to suffer slights without protesting, be gullible, or to have something forced on you

Quite a far cry from “swallowing grass snakes”, we’d wager. 

This is why language service providers and translation services are so vital to multilingual and international communication. There are multitudes of phrases and concepts that simply don’t translate well from one language to another, leaving far too much room for miscommunication and errors of all shapes and sizes to occur.  

2. Industry-Specific Knowledge 

Specialization in specific industries is common among translators. Fields like legal, finance, medical, e-commerce, or technical translation require translators to possess in-depth industry-specific knowledge. This is particularly true for sensitive translations such as medical translations where a minor error can potentially lead to severe and irreparable consequences.  

Therefore, translators must familiarize themselves with the terminology and practices of the industry for which they are translating or interpreting as the responsibility for the consequences is also theirs. Even the mistranslation of a machinery manual could lead to financial losses or serious injury on a large scale. At the end of the day, sometimes “good enough” isn’t nearly good enough.  

3. The Boundaries of Artificial Intelligence 

The rise of artificial intelligence has led to an increase in machine translation tools. While these tools can expedite the translation process, using them without the guidance of a translation professional can result in numerous obvious and hidden errors. Having a language service provider behind the wheel is an easy way to get the best of both worlds without compromising on quality, accuracy, or speed. This is something that GORR puts into practice every day.  

Despite artificial intelligence’s advanced capabilities, it continues to lack the human touch necessary to accurately understand and convey context, cultural nuances, and linguistic subtleties. This influences precision on a massive level and opens the door to a wonderful collaboration between man and machine.  

4. Native Speakers and Their Language Skills 

Another misconception is that native speakers are the alpha and omega of their mother tongue and, while they may possess a great deal of experience with their language, they do not always possess strong language skills 

To reiterate, being a native speaker does not automatically imply proficiency in grammar, vocabulary, and writing skills – skills that are fundamental to translation services. Moreover, native speakers might not be aware of the changes and developments in their language if they have been living abroad for an extended period leaving their linguistic knowledge out of date. This is not only true of slang and pop culture, but of novelties in any field as it inevitably develops.  

5. The Importance of Professional Training

Perhaps most crucial of all, professional translators undergo rigorous training to refine their skills. They learn how to handle different types of texts and styles, ranging from legal documents to literary works. This training is what gives them their attention to detail and, perhaps more importantly, the experience to know when they don’t know something

They train to work under tight deadlines while maintaining a very high quality of work. This formal education and training distinguish them intensely from bilingual individuals through their industry expertise and strong command of (at least) two languages, their respective cultures, and novelties. It is this that makes the very real difference in the quality of a final product.  


To uphold the necessary standards of the profession, translators will continue to require a specific set of skills that the bilingual simply do not possess. Besides understanding the nuances of the languages they work with to accurately convey the intended meaning, they must also navigate the limitations of AI tools and the confusion they can cause.  

Therefore, being bilingual or multilingual is merely the first step on the path to becoming a translator. Be assured, it takes much more than that to take one’s knowledge from fluency to mastering the art and science of translation. 


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