”Just translate.” – On (linguistic) skills needed in translator’s work


© KK-kuva, Joensuu
© Minna Kumpulainen
© Minna Kumpulainen
© Minna Kumpulainen

Minna Kumpulainen

Lectio praecursoria, 5 December, 2016, University of Eastern Finland


“Just translate” is a sentence which translators hear from their clients from time to time. This sentence annoys translators, because it usually means that they are expected to translate the text by switching the language, transferring the words in exactly the same order from the original to the translation, leaving no words out and adding nothing.


This sentence reflects the extreme case of ignorance about the work of professional translators, but I dare to claim that the nature of their work and the skills involved in it are generally little known of or understood. People may wonder why translation needs to be studied at all, if one already can speak two languages – doesn’t that equal to being able to translate? Translation tasks are perhaps given to the girl next door who is good at English. After all, why pay a translator if she can do the same for half the price – or less. When I tell people that I teach translation, they sometimes ask me: Do you mean that you teach English? Or Finnish? No, I teach translation, which is a skill on its own.

Why is it that the work of translators is so little known? Why is it that translation as a profession is undervalued, and the expertise and skills of a translator are not acknowledged?

Everyday translation –––––––––––––– translators’ translation” (Continuum on a PowerPoint slide)

One explanation may lie in the fact that translation is a diverse phenomenon. It is done for various purposes and in a wide range of situations, and the skills needed to translate in different situations vary tremendously. Not all translation in this world is carried out by translators. It cannot be and it does not have to be. Tuija Kinnunen has written about translation as almost a civic skill. She remarks that as the Finnish society is becoming more and more multinational, translation and interpreting are needed more than ever in everyday life and practices.

All the people who have some level of knowledge and skills in two languages may also have to translate between these two languages, in freetime or as a part of their duties at work. Many of us have translated Finnish signs and pieces of instructions for tourists who do not understand Finnish. Or translated English texts to relatives or friends who do not understand English. Many bilingual children act as links between their monolingual parents and school, translating the messages sent from school to their parents and vice versa. I am sure that our Finnish students here at the university also do quite a bit of translating for the foreign students, since some relevant information is only available in Finnish. Nurses, pharmacists, the police, school and kindergarten teachers, priests, reporters, journalists, trainers, civil servants, bank clerks and others working in customer service carry out translation tasks in their work. This kind of translation is unexpected, and unplanned. It is INSTANT, on-the-spot translation, taking place whenever the need arises. It is perhaps more often spoken than written, but can involve written texts as well.

Yet another, completely different type of translation is carried out in foreign language lessons at school. Most Finns, I believe, have translated chapters in their English or Swedish books into Finnish, or translated some sentences from Finnish into a foreign language. This type of translation has a specific purpose, that of teaching a foreign language and its characteristics. For this purpose, sentences are typically translated word for word, using the vocabulary list provided as the source of information.  

These kinds of translations are perhaps more familiar to people than the translation of translators. Therefore, they may also represent the whole field of translation to many people, to the extent that their understanding of the action is based on them. This understanding is correct, of course, but it is also necessarily one-sided and fragmentary. There are significant differences between the translation I just described and the translation typically carried out by a translator. If the multifaceted nature of translation is ignored and all translation is considered the same, the skills of a professional translator are bound to go unnoticed.

Translation as an action could be compared to photography. Everyone with some level of language skills translates; everyone with a smartphone with an integrated camera takes pictures. However, taking pictures to be posted on Facebook or Instagram is one thing; and taking pictures for high-quality journals, newspapers or, other paying customers is another. Carrying a camera does not make anyone a photographer, no more than speaking two languages makes anyone a translator. A professional photographer not only carries a camera, but also knows the camera: what can be done with it in different circumstances and how it is all done. A professional uses different equipment depending on the type of photography: whether it is portraits, weddings, sports events, or landscapes. A professional chooses the settings according to the lighting. The whole photographing event is planned according to the purpose of the photos: a passport photo needs to meet different criteria than, for example, a portrait taken to mark a wedding anniversary. It takes a professional to know these criteria and to take pictures that actually meet the criteria. In the same way, a translator not only knows two languages, but also knows how to adjust the use of languages to meet the demands of different situations. A translator can produce quality translations when quality is needed. In on-the-spot translation, it is usually enough to make the participants to understand each other, one way or another. The purpose of translation is to enable communication or to keep it going. On-the-spot translation tolerates mistakes and ungrammatical language as long as the main point gets through. A translator typically operates in situations of a different nature. These situations place much higher quality expectations to the translation output. The quality that is sufficient in on-the-spot translation is usually insufficient in a professional translator’s job.

While this unplanned, everyday translation is needed to enable communication,  translators are needed to enable international trade and politics, to sell products to a new audience, to inform customers about products, to make international laws such as EU legislation accessible to all citizens, to enable people’s access to services, to ensure human rights in court proceedings, to bring world literature and other works of art to the enjoyment of larger audiences – just to mention a few examples. A translator often works with special field texts, such as medicine, technology, law, business and economics, forestry, and so on. A translator’s work is usually printed or published online in an electronic form, as an operating manual, an annual report, a business contract, a webpage, a book, a leaflet, a newspaper or a magazine article, subtitles of a movie, or the like. Obviously, the skills and knowledge needed to work with these texts are very different from the everyday translation setting. Naturally, translators need a strong command of the two working languages, but they also need a wide range of extra-linguistic skills: they need to know about the subject field and the culture behind the text to be translated. They also need excellent information mining skills; when translators do not know something, they find out. Finally, translators need strategic skills and knowledge about translation as an action: they can analyse the translation situation, recognize the challenges involved in it, and know what level of quality is needed for the purpose of translation.

The role of these extra-linguistic skills involved in translation has been emphasized in earlier studies into translation competence and its development. Obviously, they are the skills that most clearly differentiate translators from non-translators. The linguistic skills involved in translation have aroused less interest among researchers. In my study they are the focus of interest. However, it is not bilingual competence of a translator that I am interested in, but the linguistic skills that characterize translation in particular. In addition to bilingual competence, translators also possess skills needed to work between two languages. These skills, which I call interlingual text production skills, are the specifically TRANSLATION-related linguistic skills, which do not develop automatically when learning a foreign language.

In practice, a translator with high level of interlingual text production skills can produce a translation that is natural and fluent in the target language. To illustrate how a lack of these skills manifests on a textual level, I will show you some examples from online news (see PowerPoint slides). 

Last spring, a Finnish tabloid published a piece of news about Michelle Obama’s Instagram message in which she congratulated her husband on his 55th birthday.

The message said “55 years young and that smile still gets me every single day.” The Finnish title in the online news was


This title is incomprehensible in Finnish; it does not mean anything. It is an English expression in a Finnish disguise, so to speak: looks Finnish but is not. The expression could be back-translated into English as ‘that smile receives me still’. I think that the person who has written this piece of news would not produce such an expression in monolingual writing. In interlingual text production, however, this kind of mistake can easily happen: one does not work between the languages, that is, rebuild the source expression meaning using the grammatical and lexical means of the target language. In this example, the words of the original are transferred one by one to the Finnish text, with the most common dictionary equivalents. In such text production, one does not pay attention to the differences between languages. In the Collins English dictionary, ‘get’ gets 27 different meanings, one of them being ‘to have an emotional effect on; to charm’. ‘Saada’, ‘to receive’ is one of them, but ‘saada’ does not have the same meaning potential as ‘get’. The message is lost.

Another example comes from the same online publication. This piece of news is about Bob Dylan, who is going to give his Nobel prize speech next year in his concert in Stockholm. The Finnish title of the piece of news is

Bob Dylan saattaa antaa Nobel-puheensa Tukholman-konsertissa ensi vuonna

The piece of news was originally published in NBCNews, where the title is No-show Bob Dylan could finally give Nobel Prize lecture – at 2017 concert. 

This time the Finnish title is understandable, but it nevertheless shows a lack of interlingual text production skills; in Finnish, one does not ‘give’ a speech. Again, the text producer goes for the most common translation on the word level, without considering the differences in the way the apparently equivalent words collocate. In idiomatic Finnish, one would say ‘pitää puhe’, a speech or a lecture is ‘held’.

These testimonies of a lack of interlingual text production skills often circulate in social media. People – often professional translators - tend to react to them with disbelief and humour, and express their amazement at the writer’s inability to produce Finnish. I admit to being one of those people. However, I also feel that by making fun of these testimonies, we underrate the very specific skills we possess as translators. Skills to work between languages are, as far as I can see, the core of translation competence; to a translator, this is perhaps so self-evident that we do not come to think of them as the linguistic skills that actually differentiate a translator from other bilinguals. Although journalists or reporters translate as a part of their daily practice, they are not translators. They seldom have had any translator training, or learnt translation independently – this is at least what I think. Therefore, they do not necessarily recognize the differences between monolingual and interlingual text production, and do not pay attention to the way the source text guides the writing. Following the source text closely is found to be the least cognitively demanding translation method, a kind of a default procedure in the human brain. It is, therefore, understandable that this method is applied by non-translators. In fact, professional translators adopt this method, too, but they do it knowingly as a processing strategy. However, because they are experts of interlingual text production, they can control the process and revise the produced translation for unwanted source text influence.

Acquisition of skills needed for working between languages is one of the main learning aims of BA level translator training. This is why I chose to focus on these skills. In my study, I follow a group of seven students of English language and translation from the beginning of their BA studies to their final year. The students translated an easy text at the beginning of their BA studies and another, similarly easy text at the end of their studies. My study aims first, to define what skills are involved in interlingual text production, and second, to look into the way these skills develop during the first years of translator training.

The results show clearly that interlingual text production is a demanding task, even when one translates an apparently “easy” text into one’s native language. The different types of difficulties students experienced during translation, especially at the beginning of training, can be linked to a variety of skills needed in translation. First of all, even if all students found the text ‘easy to understand’, there were some words in the text that were misunderstood by many. When a text is read for the purpose of quality translation, it needs to be fully understood; all words and structures potentially contribute to the overall meaning. Comprehension for translation is different from comprehension for leisure-time reading – we can easily enjoy a novel in a foreign language without understanding every single word of it, but we cannot translate it without full comprehension.

Second, rebuilding the source text message in Finnish seemed difficult to many. Keeping English at bay from Finnish texts is a common challenge at the beginning of studies. Skills needed to avoid source text influence seem to develop gradually, and certain types of ST influence seem to be easier to detect in the translated text than other types. Lexical ST influence seems to be the most challenging type: such influence does not make the translated text incomprehensible but nevertheless unidiomatic, somewhat strange or unnatural. The Bob Dylan example represents this type of source text influence.

Some students’ translations were devoid of ST influence from the very beginning. It seemed that these students tried to avoid any similarity between the source text and the translation. Although this often resulted in an appropriate, fluent Finnish text, the process preceding it was typically complex and time consuming. All tentative solutions were similarly devoid of any structural resemblance to the source text. This kind of processing raised the question whether interlingual differences were actually recognized or not. Thus, a further skill in interlingual text production is knowing when deviation from the source text is necessary and when it is not; I call this a balancing skill, a skill to recognize differences as well as similarities between the working languages.

Finally, some students produced Finnish that was inaccurate without being influenced by the source text structures. This may imply shortcomings in Finnish skills also in monolingual writing, but it may also imply that production of Finnish – or any target language - in a translation situation is a slightly different process than monolingual text production and thus, requires slightly different skills. After all, in translation you cannot formulate your text freely, since you are operating with the meaning of the source text. In that sense, a source text is a constraint for a text producer.

By the final year of their BA studies, all students’ skills were improved, most clearly with regard to avoiding unwanted ST influence in translation. However, interlingual text production still seems to be a very complex process: students revise and correct their texts in the third year at least as much as they do at the beginning of their studies. Clearly, it takes a lot of practice to learn the linguistic skills involved in the translators’ work. These skills should not be underrated, and their role as the core competence of translators should, in my opinion, be paid due attention to also in the future translator training. 


Kumpulainen, Minna (2016): Learning translation: An empirical study into the acquisition of interlingual text production skills. University of Eastern Finland.