Last Updated: Wed Aug 10, 2011 17:32 pm (KSA) 14:32 pm (GMT)

Sarah Sfeir /I could be a translator too!

I have majored in translation, a domain with complexities and difficulties that few non-translator people know about. Indeed, how many times have I heard “You could have studied English literature and worked as a translator!” or "Oh! You’re a translator! How many languages do you speak? What? Only 4? I could be a translator too!" Needless to say that when confronted by such “kind” remarks, I tend to concentrate on breathing in order to avoid getting blood on my hands.

For those who are not aware of what translation really is, allow me to clarify the following:

Technically, translation is not about being able to speak or write the language, it is the communication of the meaning of a sentence/word from a language to another (yes, I actually have to use my brain here, and not simply look for words in the dictionary and then paste them to make a sentence).

Being good in English and Arabic does not automatically imply that anyone can translate from and into these two languages. How many times have you watched a movie in English and although you understand the language you read the subtitles in Arabic? Well, I find myself doing it quite often and to be honest I feel offended by the translation or should I say the “arabization” of English expressions.

My favorite movie of all times is “Face-Off.” I won’t go deep in the details of this movie, but let me tell you that I was once in a restaurant and they had their TVs on a movie channel with subtitles in Arabic in mute mode. So there I was watching it and reading the subtitles when suddenly I read John Travolta asking Nicolas Cage “Do you see anything like you?” It took me a second to realize that in fact he was saying “Do you see anything you like?” and that the person who "translated" the movie must have misunderstood the question.

Another time, I was zapping from a channel to another and froze when I read: “The night is here. We're all going to die.” I thought to myself “Not another horror movie!,” when suddenly I see a Knight in armor riding a horse. In such cases I know that the “translator” didn't have the script when he was translating and that he/she must have relied on his/her hearing. Another similar case was when I read in a movie a farmer explaining to the police that the medicine he had in his pocket was “for God.” It turned out - I watched the entire movie since I wanted to see why God was sick and how was that man going to send him the medicine- the man owned a goat (yes a GOAT).

As you see translation is not a piece of cake, and unfortunately translation is intellectual work, it means that the product is seen as a simple piece of paper, and sometimes people open wide eyes when they know how much a translated document costs. This is why when I came across an article describing relevant situations faced by translators in their everyday life; I couldn't resist pasting some extracts:

Client: We need this project back within three days. We’re really pressed here.

Translator: No problem.

C: How much will that be?

T: $1500.

C: Isn’t that an awful lot for a three-day job?

T: I can do it in a week if it’ll make you feel better.

C:What is your best rate?


C:That much for a piece of paper?

T: No, no. I don’t charge for the paper. That comes free with the translation. The price is for putting words on the paper.”

C: We pay on the basis of 1500-character pages, but we don’t count spaces. You don’t have to translate the spaces, so we don’t pay for them.

T: I don’t have to translate commas or periods, either.

C: Exactly.

T: OK. Then I’ll remove all the spaces and punctuation, and you can go ahead and put them back in yourselves later.

These are only some examples of what a translator has to put up with, so next time you meet one of us, carefully weigh your words because you know what to expect now.

(Sarah Sfeir, who holds an MBA from USEK University in Lebanon, is a Ph.D. candidate in translation. She can be reached at:

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