Translating: Is there method in the madness?

How do translators work? How do I work? Are the two the same? Earlier today, I got on to thinking about these exact questions and almost instantly decided to write a post looking at how I actually translate.

However, rather than getting into discussions over personal preferences for certain terminology resources or how to set up an ideal translation workspace, I want to look at the more general process of gradually transforming a source text into a target text that is common to all translators.

With this in mind, it struck me that I’ve developed something of a ‘stock’ procedure over the years and I thought I’d try to break it down here.

Beyond providing a brief exploration of the inner workings of my own translation universe, meanwhile, I also want this post to act as a call for other translators out there to share their methods, which will no doubt vary considerably based on language pairs, specialist areas, clients, CAT tools used and so much more.

I’m genuinely interested to find out if there’s a general path that most translators follow or whether each individual niche brings about a unique method (the reality, I imagine, will lie somewhere between the two).

For me, this purely text-oriented analysis of my translation method can be loosely outlined by three different sections. These sections overlap and vary considerably according to the text/deadline etc. but I think that they offer a reasonable reflection of the way that I gradually go about handling the transformation from source to target text while also keeping this post relatively brief.

  • Drafting

First of all, as I usually work with fairly short texts, I like to produce a rough draft as soon as possible after receiving a new job. This draft follows the sentence structure and paragraphing of the source text closely and allows me to spot any unfamiliar terminology or tricky phrases nice and early, giving my brain something of a head start (no pun intended…) on coming up with suitable renderings.

During this stage, I focus on capturing all of the source text information while flowing English remains a side concern. Although the translation is a long way from completion, I find that having a complete target language template to build upon smooths the transition to that final text.

  • Reworking

After initially running through the text, this section involves moulding the draft into something resembling a coherent piece of English writing. Rather than seeing each phrase as an isolated unit where style gives way to substance, this is where the bigger picture has to come into focus and sentences and paragraphs can be reworked to find a fitting target language balance.

I still refer heavily to the source text during this stage, often double-checking certain renderings or trying to conjure up more economical phrasings, but my attention is firmly shifted towards that final text.

With so much going on in terms of accurately relaying the source text message and developing the readability of the target text output, this section is probably where you’d say the ‘real’ translation takes place and tends to take the most time and effort.

  • Polishing

Now comes the time to turn that emerging text into the highly-polished final product. While I will still refer back to the source text occasionally if I need to double-check any facts, figures or phrasings, the focus now lies squarely on refining the target text.

Time permitting, this process usually goes on until fairly close to the deadline as I like to allow as much time as possible to elapse before my final check to help me spot any unnatural phrases or grammatical mishaps that eluded me during earlier read-throughs.

As a further aid to overcoming the kind of ‘immunity’ that you develop to your own writing style, where mistakes can slip by unnoticed, I also find that reading through the text out loud is a great help.

Finally, as a general rule of thumb, I like to have three error-free read-throughs before submitting a text. The number of times through is almost arbitrary but I feel that it’s important to set a limit to avoid endless agonising over mistakes that aren’t there.

Of course, despite the concrete stages that this post suggests, the actual process of translation is a more natural, fluid activity (apart from those instances where the deadline is so tight that it turns into a frenzy of stress, swearing and fleeting inspiration).

Indeed, as I’ve gained experience, I’ve found that an increasing proportion of the initial ‘draft’ is perfectly in-tact by the time the text is delivered, particularly when faced with stock phrases that have cropped up many times before.

That said, however, there will always be certain linguistic conundrums that keep you switching things up until the very last minute.

Now it’s over to you. How do you work? Do you draft or look for a ‘final’ translation from the outset? Is proofing a major part of your work or do things naturally fall into place? Let me know!


15 responses to “Translating: Is there method in the madness?”

  1. Fascinating insights, Joseph. Your method is very similar to the one that my wife adopts. Her first draft, produced lightning fast, soon comes to resemble my early attempts at Latin prose translations at school – covered in red ink. She is a merciless critic of her own work. The client never gets to see anything before her third rework – your “polishing” phase. I am the very opposite. I start at the top left-hand corner and aim to produce the finished item in a single run-through. It doesn’t work entirely, of course, but leads much more quickly to an almost sellable product. With the first run-through complete, I set the source text aside and revise my translation as if it were an original. Every now and again I will refer back to the source, to make sure I haven’t deviated (too far) from the original meaning in the interests of fluency. One thing’s for sure – the more experienced I’ve become, the faster I translate – something you mention experiencing for yourself. The collection of stock renderings for source language phrases just keeps on growing. I admire your “three error-free read throughs”. I rarely have time for more than one – and even if I had, I doubt that I’d spot any errors still in there, blinded by the awareness that it’s my own work and I’ve already checked it. My grail is the production of a finished product in a single pass – with finished meaning fit for purpose and at least as good as the original.
    Thanks for maintaining this very interesting blog!

    1. Really glad you enjoyed it Paul, and thanks for such an insightful comment. It was extremely interesting to read how your methods vary so much within a single household.
      Part of me is definitely tempted to at least try the ‘one fell swoop’ approach for the obvious benefits to productivity but another part of me is already certain that I’m too set in my ways…
      Thanks again,

  2. Thanks for posting! As freelancers, we so often work in isolated conditions, so it’s gratifying to read that other successful translators work in a way similar to my own. My own first rough draft stage I call “getting the text out of the source language”, while the second is “getting it into English.” The polishing stage is, I would hope, the same for any translator worth their salt.
    I work on the “one fell swoop” method for certain texts in certain formats, but end up feeling very unsure of myself and probably spend double the amount of time proofreading, just in case.
    Reading your post has really given me a boost!

    1. Thanks so much for your comment Joanna, I’m really glad that it’s made a bit of a difference!

      I like the labels that you use for the first two stages, they really capture the sense of translation being so much more than just swapping one language for another.

      Thanks again, enjoy the rest of your week 🙂

  3. That’s a nice breakdown of your process. I see some of my own processes in there, except mine tends to zigzag. Many times I find myself reading my translation out loud the first time I dot it. At other times, I go back to a literal translation (sentence) after I have written a non-literal one just to check if it’s the best rendering of the source language thought, especially when i’m doubting its readability. I guess somewhere in my madness is a method,

    1. And then I go back like this to check my typos: “do it” not “dot it”, “when I’m doubting” (cap I). One thing we definitely agree on: take as much time as necessary (as close to the deadline) before submitting, so as to have a fresh look — for errors and for last-minute changes.

      1. Thank you so much for your comment and your perfectly executed (and fully intentional, no doubt) demonstration of the importance of proofing. 🙂

        It’s been so interesting to read how different translators work, there are lessons to learn in every method! I particularly like your idea of checking the target text against a more literal rendering, that’s something that I’ve never tried but can instantly see how it would be beneficial.

        Thanks again, have a great weekend!

  4. So interesting. Your method is more or less my own. I adopt a slightly different tactic when translating in a CAT tool for delivery as a package. However, when delivering a Word document to what is usually a direct client I will have read the document several times on paper, making final enhancements to the Word document. Because I use a CAT tool for all my work, this is the point where I may well switch segments around so that the sense flows better.
    I am often surprised that my first draft which I always feel while I am “bashing it down” is pretty unpolished, actually doesn’t need to be rewritten – just tidied up somewhat.

    1. I know the feeling, the whole “wow, that’s actually quite good already” moment 🙂
      Reading texts through on paper is something I’ve never tried but know a few people who swear by it. Just changing the text zoom by 10% on Word is often enough for me to spot an error or two so I can only imagine how many would crop up on paper!
      Thanks for your comment 🙂

  5. Always enlightening!

    As you point out sometimes what determines the process is the deadline itself. A stage when you read everything very fast might also be involved.

    I have recently developed this “mad method”:

    After the drafting/rewriting/spell-checking I convert into pdf (if it’s a Word doc) and read throughout as many times as possible until no error is found: madness?

    1. Hi Magda, good to hear from you. Glad you enjoyed it!
      Your mad method sounds all too familiar! While I based my post on translation being more than a race against the clock, that’s certainly not always the case and you perfectly captured those crazy times (“as many times as possible” is right on the money!).
      Thanks for your comment 🙂

  6. Thank you for sharing your translation method. We need more posts like this from other bloggers.

    I adopt a similar method. The biggest advantage of writing a fast draft is that we get enough time to ask about unclear or ambiguous expressions. It helps us avoid asking questions at the eleventh hour.

    1. Thanks for your comment Suyash, I totally agree. It’s been interesting to hear how many translators head straight for that finished product. While it’s obviously a more efficient method, for the majority of the texts that I translate that extra stage of feeling out the text (and spotting potential problems, like you say) is absolutely essential.

      Thanks again, enjoy the rest of your weekend!

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