If you have something in one language, and you need it in another, you hire a translator. It’s simple. Right? No, it isn’t.
It sounds like a simple decision. It isn’t.
Maybe it should be a simple decision. It still isn’t.
The confusion is understandable. Writers and translators are both wordsmiths. Both are masters of the language. Both use the same tools. Both cost about the same. The product they deliver might even look much the same.
The difference between them is subtle. It’s so subtle that many people miss it completely.
Sometimes they throw money in the trash duplicating effort.
So what’s the difference?
Both translators and writers write. The purpose of that writing is very different. The thought process that goes into it is also different.
A translator converts your writing into another language. The goal is to take your work and make it say the same thing in that language.
A writer takes your message and perfects it. The goal is to take your work and make it say the same thing, but in a way that will resonate with readers.
A translator changes one language to another. A writer changes the same language to a better version of itself.
A writer can also take one type of work and turn it into another, or even a series of others.
So which do you need and when?
For internal communications, documentation, memos, etc, it’s translator all the way. Here the goal is to set out existing information in the readers’ preferred language.
You are communicating with people who need or want that information. You do not need them to take action. You do not need to entice them to read or to tempt them into engaging with you.
You are setting out facts, not trying to convince.
Convincing a reader is a key differentiator. As soon as you need to pull people in, convince them to act, or entice them to engage, you need a writer.
As soon as you need to influence the readers’ thoughts, you need a writer.
As soon as you want to control their impressions or build positive opinions, you need a writer.
Like everything else in Life, nothing is this black-and-white. There are writers who can translate. There are translators who can write convincing copy.
That just adds to the confusion.
There is also a gray area in documentation.
Usually, documentation lies well within the translator’s camp. But, a lot of it is horrible. That’s not the translators fault.
How often have you read a text that “explains” something? How often were you more confused after reading it than before?
That’s when it needs a writer’s touch.
A writer is like a translator that translates into the same language. We make it better. We translate your intended thoughts, not just your words.
We don’t need a perfectly translated piece. It doesn’t matter how “bad” the original is. We want your thoughts. We want them raw and unadorned. From there, we craft your final message.
We can also translate one type of writing into another. Sometimes I start from technical papers to develop a series of marketing pieces.
Those are always fun. In fact, that’s what prompted me to write this post.
Recently, a new client asked me to write a series of marketing blog posts. I would start from a technical paper.
We communicated, talked, and finalized. I cleared room on my schedule and waited for the tech documents to arrive.
And I waited.
Then I waited some more. I started wondering what was going on.
Finally, the technical paper arrived. It arrived thirteen days after I was expecting it. That was five days after the first post’s scheduled date. It did not come from my client. It came from a translation service.
Here’s the strange part.
The original document was in French. I’m fluent in French. Using a French document to write English copy is no problem.
I mentioned that in our French conversation. I also mentioned it in my French confirmation email. I even spelled it out in the contract that I would work from the French document.
I got a translated document, anyway.
Even if I weren’t fluent in French, I wouldn’t need a formal translation. Native English speakers hire me to tailor their English writing.
You could say I translate English to English. There’s little difference between starting from excellent, good, or not-so-good English.
My client needed the English version for another purpose. At least, he didn’t waste money. He thought he helped me by providing an English copy.
He didn’t. But, his intentions were good. He left me with a big hole in my schedule.
No worries. The universe stepped in.
Holes like that fill up fast.
Another client called in a panic. They needed something written in a hurry.
The second client got lucky.
So did I.