The X-Factor

As every translator knows, the bane of our existence is a common perception that anyone who has taken a semester of Spanish in high school or spent a year in France can be a translator. This sad state of affairs is not helped by the proliferation of sketchy, bottom-feeder “start earning money working from home!” translation platforms and uninformed popular notions about the use(fulness) of machine translation. But now help has arrived in the form of an unexpected ally: the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation, better known as the FBI.

The FBI, whose mission is to protect American citizens and uphold the constitution of the United States, uses contract linguists to translate documents, interpret during interviews with subjects of an investigation or visits from foreign dignitaries, and provide cultural expertise to assess and mitigate threats to our national security. Translation (or interpretation) errors can have fatal consequences, so flawless performance is of the utmost importance.

So not surprisingly, the path to becoming a qualified FBI linguist is long and arduous, including extensive written and oral testing, background checks, polygraph tests and drug tests. Multiply all this paperwork by thousands of candidates over the course of decades, and you have a huge pile of data ripe for meta-analysis just sitting there — until recently.

After many years of spending a lot of time and money on vetting translators, the FBI realized that their tests did not, in fact, guarantee quality translations. So they commissioned a team to analyze the test data to find out what, if anything, was missing in their testing procedures. The results were published in 2017 in Linguistica Antverpiensia as Testing the Right Skill: Evidence to Support Testing Translation Ability.

The traditional assumption had been that the only requirements for translation were reading comprehension in the source language and writing ability in the target language. However, they found that this was not actually the case. Analysis showed that reading comprehension and writing ability were necessary but not sufficient:

In conclusion, the data support the assertion that reading ability in the SL and writing ability in the TL are prerequisites for translation ability, but they are not substitutes for measures of translation ability. The inability to read the SL or write the TL will predict low translation ability; however, high reading and writing abilities also cannot predict translation ability. Therefore, the ability to exercise congruity judgement is a latent variable that plays an integral role.

Apparently, proficient translators also possessed an X-factor called “congruity judgement”, which was defined as “the ability to choose equivalent expressions in the target language that best match the meaning intended in the source language.” Somewhat of a “duh” statement if you’re a translator reading this, but apparently a major revelation even to an organization with one of the most long-standing, stringent translator vetting procedures in the business.

In any case, they did figure it out in the end and not only that, but their research has given us more hard data to use instead of ineffective defensive bleating at social and professional gatherings. So on behalf of a grateful nation of translators, we thank you, FBI researchers, for your service.

5 thoughts on “The X-Factor

  1. Very interesting article.

    Don’t you just love it when people invent new terms that are completely unnecessary, such as “congruity judgment”. What a satisfying feeling that must be.
    Hmmhh, the ability to distinguish what is congruous from what isn’t; in other words, what makes sense from what doesn’t ; in other words, what is logical from what isn’t. Hey, why can’t we just call this mysterious X-factor “logical reasoning ability”!

    We can make it even simpler and just call it “intelligence”, even though this word is apparently no longer in fashion.

    Hey FBI !, and anyone else out there who’s listening, being a good translator isn’t just about knowledge (also known as “crystallised intelligence”), it also require “fluid intelligence”, i.e. the ability to think and solve problems.

    Believe it or not, translators need to think! It isn’t all automatic. They must understand the source text, understand the context and choose the right translation solution from multiple possibilities in the target language.

    In other words, dear FBI and everyone else, you have to be smart to be a good translator.

    In fact, I know a translator who was hired almost solely on the basis of an IQ test.


    • Hi Charles, thank you for taking the time to comment! And yes, the term “congruity judgment” is probably a bit overwrought 🙂 But I like that it expresses the idea that translation is not simply Text A –> automated matching process –> Text B, but that more complex judgment is required between A and B. And you’re absolutely right that this takes intelligence, but I’m thinking it has to be more than that, because not all smart people are good translators. The FBI study referred to this specific type of intelligence as an X-factor, i.e. we’ve given it a name (congruity judgment) but we still don’t know how it actually works. I wonder if there any studies out there that have investigated this ability. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ability to translate well is related to a talent for math and music, which also involve logic, patterns, beauty, etc.

      • “I wouldn’t be surprised if the ability to translate well is related to a talent for math and music, which also involve logic, patterns, beauty, etc.”

        Right on! And thanks for the article, it’s very interesting indeed. Très intéressant (I’m a French translator) 😉

  2. Pingback: FBI to the defense | A-Z Translations

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