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How Translation Is Like A Puzzle

Erica Huttner

Just over a year ago, I wrote a post about why I believe translation is a fascinating career. In it, I primarily focused on how my translation career has given me the opportunity to constantly learn about new topics that I never would have learned about otherwise, as well as add diverse terminology to my personal lexicon, related to everything from Mediterranean fish species to industrial machinery.

Last week, I suddenly realized another reason I love translating: sometimes, it's like doing a puzzle! I've always been a puzzle fanatic, from jigsaw puzzles to crossword puzzles. There's something so satisfying about taking different pieces and fitting them together to create a new whole.


In many situations, translations are straightforward, and choosing the right words to convey the source text in the target language is quite simple. However, in some cases, such as a large translation I worked on last week, they can be a bit of a puzzle.

There are many reasons why the translation I was working on last week felt like a puzzle. First of all, the document I was translating was for a translation agency instead of the actual client. While you can often rely on getting additional context from a direct client, it's much more difficult when working through an agency. In this particular case, there was no way for me or the agency to reach out to the document's writer for more information, so I had to do a bit of detective work during the translation process.

As I've mentioned in the past, sometimes the little things can be the most difficult in translation, including grammatical aspects like gender. In this case, I was dealing with a report that referred to people either by their last names or by simply using third-person singular verb conjugations. This posed an issue because Spanish doesn't require the use of the words él and ella ("he" and "she") before conjugated verbs.

While I could have used the neutral singular "they" instead, it would have made the report much harder to read. In some cases, I found a stray él or ella with a name that allowed me to determine whether the person was female or male, so I could use phrases like "she said" and "he noticed" instead of using the singular "they". In other circumstances, the person's full name would be mentioned, but then I'd have to figure out what gender corresponded to their name.

Luckily, Spanish naming customs are helpful in that respect. Not only do Spanish speakers tend to choose from a much narrower list of names than English speakers, but they are also fairly gender-specific. From a translator's standpoint, that's incredibly helpful, as you can feel fairly confident it's accurate to refer to someone named María as "she", and José as "he". However, there were still a few stray names that I had to research online in order to determine the correct gender pronoun to use.

Another thing that made this translation like a puzzle was the fact that since I couldn't contact the original writer, I had to try to put myself in their place and see things from their perspective. In a sense, I was acting like a detective, trying to decipher their meaning. Certain sections of the report were clearly written for an audience with far more context than me, so I had to simply do my best by filling in a tentative translation while guessing their meaning. Luckily, as I worked my way through the document, additional details filled in the contextual gaps, so I was able to go back and make those tentative translations more accurate.

In the end, after a week's worth of detective work searching for the right words and the right meanings, I was able to fit all the pieces together. While the topic wasn't exactly fascinating, I still found it fun because it was a challenge, just like a good jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes when you do a translation, you might have to accept that a few pieces will be missing from the final product, but hopefully you'll manage to get enough of them together to convey the full picture.

What's The Difference Between A Translator And An Interpreter?

Erica Huttner

One of the most misunderstood things about the translation industry is the fact that translators and interpreters do two very different things. Obviously the two are connected since they both involve converting information from one language to another, but the mechanics behind both are quite different.

When meeting new people, conversations often revolve around what people do for a living. One thing I've noticed about being a translator is the fact that I have to spend much more time explaining my job than other people do, because most people simply don't know what a translator does. However, they think they do, which always leads to interesting conversations.


Quite often when I mention that I'm a translator, the person I'm talking to will launch into an explanation of how their company hires "translators" for meetings with foreign clients, or how their school has a "translator" for communicating with students who don't speak English. Naturally, this puts me in the slightly awkward position of having to explain that those "translators" are actually interpreters, who do something quite different from what I do.

So what is the difference between a translator and an interpreter?

Translators are people who translate written content from one language to another. For example, clients send me things like blog posts, articles, and documents in Spanish. I then sit at my computer and work on converting the information they contain from Spanish into English. There's generally no rush, so I have plenty of time to consult dictionaries and other linguistic resources, as well as contemplate whether or not what I've written sounds natural. I can go back and change a word or phrase as many times as I like, or even rewrite entire sections upon uncovering new information that helps explain something I've already translated.

Interpreters, on the other hand, are people who interpret speech from one language to another. In most cases (unless they're providing their services over the phone), interpreters work wherever the multilingual conversation they're interpreting is being held. For example, you'll find medical interpreters working alongside doctors in hospitals, military interpreters working alongside military units in war zones, and court interpreters working alongside lawyers and judges in courtrooms.

While translators have plenty of time to sit and ponder their word choice, interpreters are expected to communicate ideas between languages almost immediately. If they're lucky, they'll receive some information regarding the topics of discussion in advance so that they can look up key terms that might come in handy. However, much of interpreting comes down to paraphrasing what is being said, since the key is to convey the message in a timely manner. On the other hand, since translation is written, much more emphasis is placed on how individual words and phrases are translated.

As you can see, translators focus on written language, while interpreters focus on spoken language. Although both professions require good knowledge of at least two languages and share some techniques and resources, they also involve very different skills. There are undoubtedly some people out there who are both translators and interpreters, but they're quite rare.

For my part, I love translating, but found simultaneous interpreting to be completely overwhelming when I tried it out in a class session as part of my translation degree. Having to listen to speech in one language, convert it into English in my head, and then say it out loud, all at the same time, made me feel like my head was going to explode. I'm much happier sticking to the written word, just as I'm sure there are interpreters out there who are quite happy they never have to deal with written translations.

Why Isn't The Word "Internaut" More Popular?

Erica Huttner

Did you know that there's actually an English word that you can use instead of saying "internet users" or "people online"? That word is internaut, a portmanteau of "Internet" and "astronaut" which the Oxford Dictionaries define as "a user of the Internet, especially a habitual or skilled one".

However, despite the fact that this 1990s creation would be very handy in everyday use, it seems not to have gained popularity in the English language. In fact, I've never heard anyone use the word internaut in English, be it in writing or in spoken language. I only learned of its existence today because I was thinking about the Spanish word internauta, which I recently encountered in a translation.

I first learned the word internauta when I studied abroad in Spain in college. Despite never having seen the word before, it was immediately obvious what it meant, and I remember wondering at the time why we didn't have an English equivalent. It wasn't an obscure word either, as it was frequently used on television to encourage people to visit a program's website, vote for a performer in a competition, and do any number of other online activities. It also wasn't uncommon to hear a TV host say that they were going to answer questions from internautas throughout the show.

When I recently encountered the word again in a translation, I ended up just using "internet users", but I wished there was a better equivalent in English. While internaut may have made it into the dictionary, I definitely don't think it's used often enough to make it an acceptable choice in most translations.

One alternative would be the slang word surfer, although it doesn't seem to be nearly as popular as it once was. There's also the added problem that the word's standard definition refers to someone who surfs waves, not the internet.

In any case, if you ever need to say "internet users" in Spanish or Portuguese, keep in mind that you can always use the word internautas! A few other Romance languages use equivalents of this word as well, including internautes in French and Catalan, and internauti in Italian.