Unless you have moved into translation later in your career and have sound knowledge of a specialist field, you will probably have a linguistics background. Although your degree programme may have included some specialist translation, without a degree in medicine and many years working as a doctor or a law degree and many years working as a lawyer, you will not have the in-depth specialist knowledge which the authors of your source texts will usually have.
Although it sometimes feels like translators should not only have studied translation and have spent enough time in the countries in which his/her working languages are spoken to be near-native in all of those languages but also have degrees as well as many years of work experience in the specialist areas he/she is translating, this really is idealistic. It is also unnecessary.
Active v passive knowledge
In my opinion translators need to have a passive knowledge or perhaps a good working knowledge of their specialist area. They need to understand enough to correctly comprehend the texts they need to translate but they do not need to be able to actively apply that knowledge. Legal translators do not need to be able to apply the law any more than medical translators need to be able to diagnose patients. What we do need to be able to do is to understand enough to be able to competently carry out the research necessary to produce accurate translations of our source texts.
Monolingual dictionaries and online encyclopaedia
Monolingual dictionaries are therefore essential for our research. We can look up source language terms and find out exactly how the term is being used and what implications this may have. When I am translating German law documents, for instance, I will sometimes look up the source language term in a monolingual dictionary of German law to find out which paragraph of which code includes the term I am interested in. As a non-lawyer I don’t need to know the codes inside out. After coming across potential target language terms in bilingual dictionaries (see yesterday’s post Part 1 – Bilingual dictionaries and glossaries (online and offline)), I will often cross-check their use in a monolingual target language dictionary to ensure that I will be using the term in the correct context. If you don’t have a monolingual dictionary for a specific field, online dictionaries and encyclopaedia can also be very useful but again, check whether the source is authoritative and do cross-check before blindly accepting what you find there.
Tomorrow’s post: Part 3 – Multilingual websites – the fruits and the pitfalls