It’s quite normal and even understandable that people ask some strange questions once they find out you’re a translator: it’s not such a common profession and many people don’t even know it exists. And that’s ok. I’m sure there are a lot more misconceptions around there, but I will try to debunk just the ones I come across more frequently.
1 – Translating is not the same as interpreting: I think this one will win the prize for the most common misconception in our profession. While translation concerns written texts, interpreting is about rendering a spoken message into another language. Both translators and interpreters should have a similar academic background and linguistic skills. On the other hand, each of them will need a different set of additional competencies to perform each of these activities.
2 – Being a translator doesn’t mean you speak dozens of different languages: even though there are professionals who speak an impressive number of foreign languages fluently, that doesn’t mean this is a requirement. Many translators will devote themselves to one single language pair their entire career, while most will work with 2-3 languages.
3 – Ideally a translator will translate only INTO their mother tongue: although this principle may be a subject of controversy among translators, it is now widely accepted and encouraged that translators only translate texts from other languages into their native language, i.e. a Spanish translator may translate from English and French into Spanish, an Italian translator may translate from Dutch and German into Italian, etc. That being said, there are also the language variants. A Brazilian translator might translate only into Brazilian Portuguese and not into the European variant, for instance.
4 – Translators are not walking dictionaries: a professional translator will ideally specialize in a limited number of subject fields. Even so, in most cases, their translation assignments will require a significant amount of research in reliable resources such as glossaries, terminology databases, etc. So, it’s very likely that they will not immediately know the accurate translation for any word you ask them about. Especially, not without some context.
If you’ve just found out you’ve been wrong your entire life, don’t worry. Now you know. Spread the word. Share this article if you think it will benefit someone you know and who is still in the dark.