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Good Grasp In Language Does Not Make You A Good Translator

Last update: 29/03/2011
By Sakini Mohd Said

This is the second of the two part series dwelling into the career as a translator and the translation work itself.

KUALA LUMPUR, March 29 (Bernama) -- "We need several translators to translate from Malay into English and the other way round and the criteria that we are looking for is fluency in both languages.

"Those with Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) qualification can apply".

The above is the general criteria found in job advertisements for translators in local newspapers. But, the question here is whether the SPM qualification is good enough for one to become a translator?

Translators have big role in translating texts or even verbal communication and throughout the ages they have contributed profoundly for the intellectual development of the different communities by literally enabling the transfer of ideas and breakthroughs in different languages.

"I regret that there are some who look down at this profession. They believe anyone with SPM qualification can become a translator," noted the senior executive of the National Translation Institute of Malaysia (ITNM) Ahmed Adam Broughton to Bernama recently.


The general perception that the translator only needs to be well versed in the languages involved in the translation process has contributed to a great misconception, that anyone can translate.

"I do not deny that the criteria that one has to have a good grasp in the languages is among the pre-requisite in taking up the role as a translator but not everyone can become a good translator as this line of work also depends on talent," he said.

Ahmed Adam who hails from England and fluent in Malay, English, Arab and Bentawi compared the translator with a singer and actor where the talent counts.

The misconception that one can translate as long as they are good in the languages had inadvertently contributed to poor quality translation works.

"For example the phrase "Saya duduk di sini" in Malay, the translators who are not familiar with the local context may translate into English word by word 'I'm sitting here' when it could also mean 'I live here'.

"Translating word by word has inherent risks, often the end result is that the translation goes out of context where the meaning is ambiguous or wrong altogether.

"This is why I always emphasize that translators have to translate within context of the language and customs and not literally translate word by word," he said.


Like other occupations, the translating profession has its own challenges in coming up with a compelling translated piece.

Therefore, Ahmed Adam who has been in this line for over 2 decades emphasized that reading is important to enrich one's knowledge and understanding the mechanics of translation to come up with excellent translated pieces.

"The biggest challenge is to translate original books and documents that have many errors in them. This is where the translator's knowledge comes handy in identifying the mistakes.

"Apart from this, when you find that there is no particular word in the language it is being translated into, for example the Malay word 'melatah'. In cases like this it is better to explain the word so that the readers understand what 'melatah' means," he said.


As for those who are keen to become a translator, they must have interest in this field and the required diligence.

They can start by translating feature articles in newspapers to another language in their free time.

"To master the world of translation, one has to get involved in a number of translation projects. The new translators can start by translating articles in the newspapers.

"Courses are also important but practice in doing translation will help enrich one's skill and experience," he said.


Though many think that the translation industry is relatively new to the country compared with professions like lawyers, doctors, engineers, the industry has actually been there for quite sometime now but has been in low profile.

This is the view of ITNM's Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer Mohd Khair Ngadiron when asked on the industry's current status.

"The society does not see this as a glamorous occupation because translators work behind the scene.

"Though the translators work behind the scene but they play an important role in extending the lifespan of the documented texts and also enable their adoption by various nations, societies and institutions," he said.

Stating that the translation profession is here to stay for good, he pointed out that the industry promises longer term employment.

However, due to the lack of knowledge and the averse to risks, many take translation as part time work only.

"At ITNM we only take those who can both edit and translate. ITNM, has a role in providing a boost for the translation industry.

"As for translation work only, ITNM outsources the work to more than 1,000 translators in its register out of which only 150 to 200 are active translators," he said adding that ITNM is now in the midst of introducing the trainee translator programme to train graduates in translation.


According to a lecturer in translation studies at the Humanities Studies Centre of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Associate Professor Dr Hasuria Che Omar only Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) offers translation course at three levels, first degree, masters degree and PhD.

She said the translation course was first offered in 1992 under the Language and Translation Centre before the course was transferred to the Humanities Studies Department in 1998 as there was good demand for the course.

Those keen to take up translation should consider their interest and abilities in translation and just give it a try.