Words Language Services



♦ What does it take to be a top-flight translator?
We examine the skills a UN agency requires.

Also: perspectives on free online dictionaries

UN job advert highlights challenges of translation work

You are the proud owner of a high-level degree in languages or have achieved a high level of fluency in a second language through living abroad for many years. You may even have done some occasional translating for friends or colleagues. Now it might be time to consider a full-time career in translating, or even dream about a high-flyer job in an international organisation. But what are such employers looking for in a top-level translator?

One job recently advertised by a UN agency showed that linguistic ability is merely the starting point: subject area knowledge and specific translation skills are also essential.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) sought to recruit an English-to-French translator to work in Ethiopia. Candidates were required to have knowledge of the "political, social, legal, economic, financial, administrative, scientific and technical subjects" dealt with by the ECA. In addition, the advert listed as "desirable", specialisation in a "particular substantive, technical or administrative area".

Core translator skills specified included: ability to maintain accuracy and consistency in terminology and content, as well as faithfulness to the style and nuances of the original text; ability to use "all sources of reference, consultation and information relevant to the text at hand".

The ECA also requires at least five years' experience, a university degree or equivalent, and success in the UN competitive examination for translators.

A tall order? Yes and no. Certainly "yes" for our aspiring recent graduate, but not for any full-time professional translator with five to ten years' broadly -based experience and specific training in translation skills.

But can anyone, regardless of experience, be an expert linguist and an expert in law, science, technology and more, all at the same time? The answer is "probably not", but the knowledge required by a translator in non-linguistic areas is not the same as that required by the expert practitioner in those areas. What the translator requires is familiarity with a subject area rather than in-depth knowledge, much in the same way as a business journalist must be familiar with economic topics, but does not need to be a qualified economist.

To anyone familiar with the translation industry, the UN requirements are simply a reflection of what clients require in today's world. Not only must we deal with many different subject areas, but also with individual documents that might cover several different topics. An environmental impact report, for example, might well contain terminology and concepts relevant to science, technology, sociology, politics, law and economics.

Indeed, the training course specifically devised by WLS for novice translators, the WLS Professional Certificate in Translation, covers many of the subject areas specified in the UN advertisement. Using typical documents from these subject areas, the translator learns the "core" skills, including the ability to correctly use information sources to produce accurate renderings of specialised documents.

To see text of full job advertisement (now closed), click here.

Free online lexicon taps people power

Online lexicon providers often limit the number of freely accessible entries in an effort to protect sales of print versions. Not so the Collins online English dictionary, which has made its entire database of 220,000 entries available, free.

What also sets this lexicon apart is that Collins, perhaps taking a leaf out of Wikipedia's book, has now opened the process of dictionary compilation to anyone interested in making suggestions for new English words to be included in the next edition.

This process of harnessing the public at large, known as "crowdsourcing", offers the advantage of helping the publisher's lexicographers keep pace with a language that is changing faster than ever before, thanks to global connectivity and a burgeoning vocabulary spurred on by advances in science and technology and by globalisation in pop culture.

New words reportedly being considered for "official word" status by Collins lexicographers include "yolo" (You Only Live Once) and "legbomb", for which we can thank actress Angelina Jolie. In addition, words submitted by crowdsource dictionary aficionados include "flexitarian" someone who is a vegetarian only when it suits them, and "floordrobe", which involves piles of clothes heaped on the carpet.

A Tale of Two Dictionaries

Another online resource from Collins is a collection of bilingual dictionaries, available via tabs on the main website. Users get free access to French, German, Italian and Spanish dictionaries.

Collins bilingual dictionaries were already available free, on the Reverso website, which continues to publish them. This site also includes entries from the Collaborative Dictionary and might appear, on first sight, a more useful resource. However, a search for a phrase, as opposed to a single word, exposed some interesting differences between the two dictionary sources.

On the Collins site, when we entered the phrase libro de cabecera (bedside book), we were offered an English translation of the phrase, examples of five usages of the full term in Spanish, and a list of several other expressions formed with the word libro (book) for which translations and usage examples were available, when clicked. Among the listed phrases were: libro de bolsillo (paperback), libro usado (second-hand book) and libro verde (green paper).

Reverso, on the other hand, presented a translation of libro de cabecera only as part of this same list of phrases derived from libro. Each Spanish phrase was "clickable", but lead only to translations of the non-root word e.g. clicking libro de cabecera lead to translations of cabecera only. There were no Spanish usage examples of the full phrase, nor was there any listing or translation of the phrase from the Collaborative Dictionary section. This latter did present a list of other phrases with libro, but these were inexplicably interspersed with phrases formed with libre (free), rendering the listing confusing and rather pointless.

From this example, the Collins site clearly wins on the translation of phrases, often an area poorly dealt with in bilingual dictionaries.

Linguistic obfuscation

Imprisoned gang members in the US state of New Mexico are using an ancient Aztec language to communicate in secret with each other and to send messages to their associates outside. Some prison officers are trying to learn the 1,400-year-old Nahuatl language in order to crack the code. Captain Joel Lytle said prison guards began learning Nahuatl after they had intercepted a letter written in the language.

- Associated Press

Interpreter's expensive mistake

An official interpreter told a London court that the Romanian defendant had been "bitten" by the claimant. During subsequent cross-examination some days later the claimant was asked for photographic evidence of bite marks. Only then did it emerge that the claimant had in fact said he had been "beaten". The judge ordered a retrial, at a cost of 25,000.

- The Lawyer


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Linguistic ability
is merely
the starting point:
subject area knowledge
and specific
translation skills
are also essential

Professional Certificate
in Translation
covers many
of the
subject areas
specified in the
United Nations