Seven Super Skills: Progressing in Translation

Today’s post sees us move from the power of translation to the process of translation and, more specifically, to a look at the demands of this process.

There are a number of vital skills required to produce high quality translations and here I put forward a selection of what I believe to be the most important of them alongside suggested methods of developing each one. Having previously touched upon a couple of the skills on my blog, I’ve also included links to relevant posts where possible.

My specific focus on the act of translation means that skills relating to freelancing or developing a translation company are not included. For example, while the ability to deal with tight deadlines is an important element of professional translation, it is not a prerequisite for the act of translation in itself.

Finally, my thoughts and suggestions are by no means exhaustive (I’ve had to overlook and merge a lot of ideas for the sake of brevity) so feel free to share your own skills and tips in the comments section.



To start off with we have the most obvious – and perhaps most misunderstood – of all the skills.

Yes, being able to understand the meaning of the source text you’re working on is of vital importance and without this necessary level of competence there is no translation. However, linguistic proficiency alone does not automatically equate to good translation despite the widely held misconceptions that a translator is just a walking dictionary or someone who simply picks ready, one-to-one equivalents between languages.

Ultimately, there is much more to translation than simply knowing a language but that’s no excuse to ignore those tricky grammar points.

How to develop:

  • Combine language courses and immersion in the source culture (time in the country, interaction with native speakers…) to develop both linguistic and cultural knowledge on a general level.
  • Pay close attention to reading skills (as opposed to speaking or writing, for example) in the source language as this is where a translator’s primary focus lies. Read books, articles, magazines – anything and everything you can in your source language(s).



As mentioned above, total command of a language and culture alone isn’t enough to make a good translator and part of the reason is that translators generally work in very specific subject areas that require specialist knowledge.

Reading technical jargon in your mother tongue alone is challenging enough and therefore it is vital that translators are intimately familiar with the inner workings of their specific areas of expertise. Contracts, patents, or medical journal entries all require specific linguistic and cultural knowledge that goes well beyond that given in general language classes.

How to develop:

  • Read anything you can relating to your specialist area to expand your knowledge and stay up to date with new developments.
  • Develop specialisms in areas that you genuinely enjoy to easily integrate research into your daily routine.
  • Sign up for MOOCs or other courses to greatly boost your subject knowledge in a comprehensive, structured fashion.

Getting to the Heart of Medical Texts


No matter how much work you put in, there are always going to be words, phrases, or concepts with which you are unfamiliar popping up in source texts and this where another key translation ability lies. I’ve said it before but it’s definitely a point worth repeating: one of the most important attributes in a translator is not what they know, but how quickly and efficiently they are able to fill the gaps in what they don’t know.

Using the vast array of resources out there, it is amazing how quickly you can become well-versed in a previously unknown area and, while the widespread advice that you shouldn’t bite off more than you can chew in terms of tackling alien projects is very valid, I say that you shouldn’t be afraid expand your horizons – know your limits but remain ambitious and embrace new projects.

How to develop:

  • Get to know which resources lead to the most effective results. (The links below cover a few different ways of tracking down that elusive word or phrase)
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with new tools to further enhance your research process.

Where to go when lost for words?

Using Corpora in Your Translation Work



As well as understanding the explicit meaning of a word or phrase, a translator must be able to appreciate its many possible functions in a specific context. Beyond surface-level meanings, the use of allusions, cultural references, linguistic or rhetorical devices such as repetition or alliteration, or elements such as register and sentence length all combine to make the text the powerful entity that it is and part of the translator’s job is to recreate their effects in another language and culture. The connotations of one innocuous-looking word can be central to the meaning of an entire text (as the first link below suggests).

How to develop:

  • Think beyond what is on the page.
  • Explore texts and analyses of texts in order to encounter the various ways in which language influences us and the ways in which we can employ language to harness those techniques.

The Power of Translation: The Fox and the Grapes

Selling Cars with Sex and Lies



This little pairing accounts for so much of the translation process as it involves the manipulation of the very platform that holds our work.

It is essential that a translator becomes an expert in using whatever programs clients demand of them and, in a manner similar to terminology mining (see above), this requires the ability to efficiently develop the knowledge you lack.

The only thing more annoying than an elusive indent sneaking into your document and blighting an otherwise immaculate page is having to spend an eternity finding a solution to the problem.

How to develop:

  • Don’t be afraid to experiment, be inquisitive in your usage of a program to learn all of its various shortcuts and quirks.
  • Read online tips or take a course in a program’s usage.



So often overlooked when people are developing their translation prowess, the ability to write effectively is perhaps the most important skill there is. With the end product of the translation process taking the form of a text written in your native tongue, the overall success or failure of your work is often heavily based on your writing ability.

The key factor in producing a translation is for it to be fit-for-purpose and resemble an original target language document whether you like it or not (the translator’s power of invisibility). While equivalence between the source and target texts should be of utmost importance to the translator, clients or end users are not going to be able to compare the two texts and emphasis is therefore placed on producing a translation that stands on its own.

How to develop:

  • Learn target language conventions for producing specific texts.
  • Take the time to read style guides from various sources.
  • Practice writing! Write for sites focusing on your specialist areas or write a blog and employ different writing styles of your own choosing.
  • Get feedback on your writing.

One year down: What blogging has to offer



The reason that the vast majority of translators offer editing or proofreading services on top of their translation work is that the move is such a natural one. Editing and proofreading your own work is a vital cog in the translation process and learning how to do it as effectively as possible is of utmost importance.

The difficulty when going through your own work is that your proximity to the text makes it more difficult to spot errors – you unconsciously read what you intended to write and your intimate knowledge of the source text’s subtleties offers you a privileged reading position that won’t be shared by your target audience. As such, the key concept to work on is distancing yourself from the text to the point of reaching an objective, uninformed position from which to assess its suitability (or as close to that as possible).

There are many different suggestions on how to best achieve this distance and to efficiently correct your own writing (examples include changing the font and size of the text you’re working on, printing the text out and working from a hard copy or reading the text back-to-front) but ultimately the best method is different for everybody. Personally I like reading out loud, taking breaks between readings, and using different levels of zoom when spotting errors and consider three consecutive error-free readings to be the benchmark for a completed text.

How to develop:

  • Experiment with a range of methods to find what works for you.
  • Get a colleague to correct your work and incorporate their advice into your own corrections.

Intralingual problems: A look at localisation

Today’s post takes a brief look at a sub-section within a sub-section of translation: an interesting phenomenon within the world of localisation. And while I don’t really specialise in localisation myself, I have some experience of the process and find it a fascinating area.

So what is localisation (or ‘l10n’ for the Twitter-savvy readers out there)? Personally, I regard it as something of a sub-section of translation but there is a certain level of cross-over between the two areas and it can be difficult to separate them. This is particularly true when the concept of adaptation is thrown into the equation, but there are certain key aspects that allow localisation to create its own identity.

While translation proper is often regarded primarily as a linguistic activity, localisation focuses intensely on the cultural side of meaning transfer. One succinct definition of localisation describes it as ‘the process of adapting a product or service to a particular language, culture, and desired local look-and-feel’.

The process demands in-depth knowledge of the target culture and extends to non-textual components when attempting to assure easy assimilation in the desired market. This level of cultural knowledge is perhaps something that every translator should incorporate into their work but its importance is not universally appreciated and non-textual factors ensure that its application does not extend as far as in localisation.

For instance, while elements such as the correct representation of dates, currencies or units of measurement should perhaps be automatically considered part of translation itself, the adaptation of certain colours or altering the physical representation of a product to adhere to local sensitivities are tasks that are usually beyond the scope of translation and fall specifically under the umbrella of localisation.

Ultimately, a successfully localised service or product is one that appears to have been developed within the local culture, masking all evidence of translation.

One element that I find particularly interesting, however, and the area that this post will focus upon from here on, is the interesting manner in which localisation can enforce changes within the same language. On a linguistic level alone, I am often asked to work into US and UK English and sensitivity to the changes required between the two can be surprisingly deep – it goes well beyond simply replacing ‘-ise’ with ‘-ize’.

An example that perfectly demonstrates the linguistic and cultural difficulties involved in such a process is the adaptation of the hit UK TV series The Office to American screens. The pilot of the US version of the show (here) was adapted from the script of the first episode of the British version (here) and a comparison between the two makes for interesting viewing in this context.

While adaptation can be considered another distinct area of translation (though certainly not without adding further blurred boundaries), the striking similarity between the two versions – in certain sections in particular – places this example firmly in localisation territory. Indeed, upon airing, the episode was criticised for simply being a direct copy of the original and most of the differentiation is due to the shorter running time of the US version – itself form of localisation as the writer is forced to conform to the conventional length of shows on US television.

Furthermore, the added admission that the producers’ intention was to simply ‘Americanize’ the show in the pilot speaks volumes about the treatment it received. (For a good example of the similarity between the two, watch 5:08 to 5:20 on the UK episode alongside 3:00 to 3:25 in the US version – the scene is nearly identical)

When viewed in parallel, the first few minutes alone demonstrate the difficulty involved in attempting to prepare a text (or a TV show in this case) for another culture even within the same language. Beyond small details like replacing ‘head office’ with ‘corporate’, which requires a level of linguistic-based cultural knowledge, there are deeper, more subtle changes being made.

The first thing to strike you is perhaps the use of different names in the US version which represent an attempt at allowing the characters to resonate with the new audience’s expectations. Problems arise, however, when a joke based around a character’s name is encountered in the original version. The UK pun on receptionist Dawn’s name (‘Every bloke in the office has woken up at the crack of Dawn’ 2:14) wouldn’t work with the US equivalent Pam and as such the joke is replaced with a toned down allusion to her attractiveness and a play on words based around her name that mimics the character Bam Bam from popular cartoon The Flintstones.

Next, a temporal aspect comes to the fore in demonstrating how topical references can date quickly and cause problems for the writer. This aspect is exaggerated here as the four-year gap between the two programmes represents a much longer period than most products will encounter before undergoing localisation.

However, this void is cleverly used to the advantage of the US version in their treatment of the ‘Wasssup!’ joke (3:31 US version) – coming from this Budweiser advert – which was an up-to-date reference in the UK version but vastly outdated in the US pilot. Instead of simply leaving the gag untouched and appearing to be behind the times, the US writers highlighted its outdated nature and used the joke as a tool to demonstrate how out of touch lead character Michael is.

One final example that demonstrates the amount of cultural juggling involved in such a process occurs at 6:40 in the UK version. Here, a head office character enters and boss David claims to have given her the nickname ‘Camilla Parker Bowles’, conjuring up a strong image for UK viewers. Meanwhile in the US version, corporate figure Jan is nicknamed ‘Hillary Rodham Clinton’ – an apparently similarly powerful woman at the time in the US and a reference that is considered to match the impact of the UK image. Whether or not this cultural substitution succeeds is up for debate but it is impossible to deny that the reference fits perfectly in its new setting.

As you can imagine, comparisons between the two could go on and on at some length and this exploration has barely scratched the surface of what is on offer. Further interesting cultural references in the US version include American sketch show Laugh-In and The Six Million Dollar Man but hopefully I have given enough to provide a little insight into the process and inspired you to watch the rest of the episodes and play a little game of linguistico-cultural spot the difference yourself. Enjoy!

Games gone global: Connecting board games and translation

The idea for this post was sparked by an advertisement I saw for a toy shop a few weeks ago. To my amazement, there was a ‘top selling’ board game advertised in which the aim of the game was to pick up dog poo… Yes, really. Entitled ‘Doggie Doo’, players take it in turns to feed/walk the dog and if you’re lucky enough you then get the opportunity to scoop up the resultant mess in a race to ‘collect’ three and be crowned champion!

After seeing this, I started to think about board games in different cultures and decided it seemed like an interesting topic to look into. I immediately assumed that this bizarre game must just have been an English one-off – surely this kind of game glorifying such a mundane and downright disgusting part of everyday life couldn’t be hugely successful? What’s next, ‘Tax Return Trouble’ or ‘Lawn Mower Mayhem’? Imagine my surprise when I found that the game is actually a huge international hit!

Developed in Germany (which, in hindsight, feels quite obvious – instilling a keen sense of civic responsibility in children seems very German according to traditional British stereotypes), the game was originally entitled ‘Kackel Dackel’ which, even with very little knowledge of German, sounds like an effective title to the English ear… With other versions including the Dutch ‘Takkie Kakkie’, Spanish ‘Bruno pu-pu’ and Italian ‘Fido Pupù’, the use of rhyme and alliteration in all of the titles is very creative, but that is not the key point I want to explore in this post.

Indeed, one more extremely counter-intuitively German game is Chinese Checkers which actually has nothing to do with either China or checkers. Developed in Germany as ‘Stern-Halma’ (‘stern’ meaning star and thus explaining the shape of the board), the game seemingly adopted its unrelated title purely as a marketing gimmick.

Further to this, another game which you would imagine to have interesting roots is ‘Ludo’. Meaning ‘I play’ in Latin, you could speculate about its origins all day without correctly concluding that it comes from India. A rich source of board games, ‘Ludo’ was developed from the game ‘Pachisi’ dating back to the 6th Century before being brought back to Britain from colonial India and given its new name. In addition, the game is played under the name of ‘Sorry!’ in the USA as it further masks its roots.

Maintaining this focus on India, one further game developed there – and one which has extremely interesting cultural significance – is ‘Snakes and Ladders’. Known as ‘Moksha Patam’ [the ladder to salvation], the game was associated with traditional Hindu philosophy and emphasised the role of fate or karma while also being interpreted as a tool for teaching the effects of good deeds versus bad.

Here, the ladders represent virtues such as generosity, faith, and humility, and the snakes represent vices such as lust, anger, murder, and theft while the number of ladders is also less than the number of snakes as a reminder that a path of good is much more difficult to tread than a path of sins.

Later on, the game made its way to England and was sold as ‘Snakes and Ladders’ before the basic concept was introduced in the United States as ‘Chutes and Ladders’ in 1943. Interestingly, in 1980, Salman Rushdie also used the game as a central metaphor in his book ‘Midnight’s Children’:

All games have morals; and the game of Snakes and Ladders captures, as no other activity can hope to do, the eternal truth that for every ladder you hope to climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner, and for every snake a ladder will compensate. But it’s more than that; no mere carrot-and-stick affair; because implicit in the game is unchanging twoness of things, the duality of up against down, good against evil; the solid rationality of ladders balances the occult sinuosities of the serpent; in the opposition of staircase and cobra we can see, metaphorically, all conceivable oppositions, Alpha against Omega, father against mother.

Clearly, things are not always what they seem when it comes to the origins of board games. While certain games, such as Monopoly, are so globally recognised that the name changes very little between cultures (indeed, the interesting variants of Monopoly are found within cultures; versions range from Catopoly to Yorkshire-opoly in England alone), so many games completely shed their original ties to ensure integration into a new culture. One final example of this could be my childhood favourite ‘Operation’, which was taken to France as ‘Docteur Maboul’ [Crazy Doctor] and Italy as ‘L’allegro chirurgo’ [Amateur surgeon].

Ultimately, this post seems less about translation than it is about cultural differences and the shifts made when moving between cultures. Yet this movement, when considered alongside the fact that games such as ‘Doggie Doo’ seem so natural in each different culture (due to naming, branding, and the aptness of the content) and the way in which their origins and authorship become masked,  ensures that the treatment of board games provides a perfect parallel for much of translation, which arrives at its end-user as a fluent, natural text and hides any notion that translation has taken place.

This ‘domesticating’ method of translation is regularly questioned in the world of literary translation in particular, but would we ever question the way in which we deal with board games? I’m in no way suggesting that board games carry the same cultural weight as literature, but the insight that they can give us into the history of a particular culture is extremely important and the clear way in which they demonstrate this ‘board game maker’s invisibility’ is an excellent indicator of translation’s own invisibility on a larger scale.

So there you have it. And how about you? I’d love to hear about some games from other cultures or any interesting examples I’ve not looked at. Ciao!