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!

Key Translation Skills: Write Right

Translators as professional writers

When it comes to improving your translation skills, the natural reaction is often to devote additional hours to that all-important source language savvy.

However, despite the undoubted centrality of this skill set, there remains another area that is often inexplicably relegated to an afterthought in translator training in spite of its overwhelming importance: the ability to write well in your target language.

Indeed, given the widespread nature of the misguided assumption that bilingualism equates to good translation, newcomers to the industry could almost be forgiven for thinking that foreign language skills are the Holy Grail of translation excellence. But it’s not that simple.

Translation is a product-oriented activity and, as such, your hours of hard work take the form of a target language text that is often used as the sole indicator of your ability. Quite simply, it doesn’t matter if you understood the source text perfectly if you can’t convey that mastery into your target language.

Of course, the unfortunate stereotypes work both ways: just as somebody who can speak two languages isn’t automatically a good translator, simply being able to write doesn’t make you a good writer.

With that in mind, here are a few quick tips drawn from my own continuous efforts to improve that will (hopefully) help you up the level of your writing . If you have any further suggestions, feel free to leave a comment below!


 

Read ABOUT WRITING

An obvious place to start is by tackling texts that directly address the issue. There are millions of words out there devoted to the subject and we all need a few tips on grammar, punctuation, spelling and the like from time to time. Newspaper articles, blogs, infographics and even style guides are all valuable sources of information that can give you a quick boost.

Write a blog

How could I leave this little gem out? One of the main reasons for starting my blog was to provide myself with a space to hone my writing skills, focusing on my ability to share information with a specific audience in mind. Reading early posts, it is striking how much my writing has changed over the years (hopefully for the better) and this body of texts is both a sign of my ongoing commitment to improvement and a useful way of gauging progress. Give it a try.

Write for friends/FAMILY

For those of you who don’t fancy writing a blog, whether due to the hassle of committing to a regular output, shyness about sharing your posts or a desire to experiment with a new style of writing in private, why not write for friends, colleagues or family members who are willing to cast a critical eye over your efforts instead?

Of course, it’s important to find somebody with the necessary expertise and a willingness to openly offer criticism and alternative solutions rather than unconditionally praising everything you write, but feedback from a trusted source can be an excellent way to progress.

Write for websites/Publications

One thing that I’ve found to be extremely helpful over the years is writing for various websites. This provides you with the opportunity to write in a different context to the comfortable surroundings of a blog post or personal practice run, for which you can set your own flexible style guide, and also allows you to get honest feedback from experienced editors.

There are hundreds of sites out there looking for contributors and, best of all, you can target subject areas that correspond to your translation specialisms. In order to focus on my specialist area of sports translation, for instance, I worked with a number of sites writing about Italian or French football in English. Subsequently, I made several new contacts in the field who have introduced me to clients on the back of my translation and writing work for their sites.

Read Your work aloud

While feedback from a professional editor is the ideal, critically assessing your own writing remains an important skill. Self-proofing can be a tricky business as it is all too easy to become immune to the peculiarities of your own style, but I’ve always found that reading aloud makes a big difference (check out this article for some more excellent tips on self-proofreading).

If you find yourself tripping over a particular phrase when you read your writing, chances are that it is not merely a slip of the tongue but rather something in the text that is restricting the flow. Furthermore, while more elusive elements such as excessively long sentences are easily glossed over when reading your work silently, you’ll soon spot them when you’re gasping for breath after struggling past the umpteenth clause of a never-ending phrase.

READ ACTUAL WRITING

My final tip is an important one. Beyond simply writing, read texts by famous authors or professionals in your specialist area that were written in your target language. Examine their language usage, question what it is that is unique to that particular style of writing and try to pinpoint what it is that makes one text more engaging than another.


 

Ultimately, developing your writing skills is an ongoing process that will never reach a final destination. Perfection is not required but be sure to avoid complacency, there is always room for improvement.

One final caveat: please bear in mind that while the tips above will help your writing skills, it is important that they are considered with the practical application of translation in mind. Writing as a translator is a different beast to producing original texts as, rather than having an infinite selection of words and phrases at your beck and call, you are tied to the message in front of you. As such, it is more than just a case of writing well, it is about writing well within the strictest of confines.

One excellent way to hone in on writing as a translation-specific activity is to analyse existing translations alongside the source text. Beyond buying two versions of the same book, many sites/articles etc. are published in several languages, allowing you to examine what it is that the translator has done:

  • Where is the line between fidelity to the source text and the importance of conveying the core message to the target audience?
  • What is it that you like or dislike and why?
  • How does the target language version read?

Remember, there are a lot of bad translations out there so don’t blindly assume that because somebody else has opted for one rendering you must do the same, think critically and offer your own solutions.

Guest Post: Ten common French-English false friends

Today we have a real treat in the form of a guest post courtesy of the team at Textualis, a linguistic services company based in Montreal. So, without further ado, let’s get into the post!


False friends, or “faux amis”, are an obstacle that many of us encounter when we negotiate the vagaries of another language. We may think we are confident of the meaning of a word but often we are sadly mistaken.

So what exactly is a false friend, and what vocabulary dangers do they present? Despite being a Germanic language, English nonetheless has many words in common with French, a Romance language. While words like “intelligence” and “accident” present no issues as they are extremely similar in both languages (minus the nuances in pronunciation of course), this simplicity invites us down a dangerous path as it can lead us to believe that we understand more than we actually do. Indeed, not all words that appear to be the same in French and English actually are and, in many cases, the meanings are miles apart.

How does the false friend phenomenon occur?

The Oxford English Dictionary refers to three types of false friend, two of which are true false friends and one of which is a partial false friend.

True false friends occur either when words have the same root but have taken different paths to adopt non-congruent meanings over the years, or when words have no root in common but look alike by coincidence.

Partial false friends can potentially be even more confusing as they have a common root and some common meaning but other areas of their meaning differ.

What sort of words can present a difficulty?

While there are so many false friends out there just waiting to trip us up, a good place to start is getting to know ten of the most common ones between French and English. Of course, hiring a professional translation company or freelancer can help you avoid any confusion.

Demander – In French this means “to ask for” but in English has very different connotations. If you demand a meeting with someone it suggests a sense of urgency, determination, and possibly a certain amount of ire or concern.

Bribes – This could definitely be a source of some embarrassment as in French bribes means “fragments” while it has very different connotations in English, being something that is given to extort an action or favor. The root of the word actually comes from the French for small amounts of bread that were given as alms.

Fabrique – An English person looking at this word may assume that it means fabric, as in a material from which items such as clothing can be made but in French it’s actually the building within which such creation takes place i.e. une fabrique is a factory.

Chair – You would not be sitting on this in France, unless you want to sit on “flesh” of course. The actual French translation of the English chair is chaise, which is not a million miles away.

Librairie – In summoning up the English word “library” you are not that far away as this means “bookshop” in France. However, you may not fare too well if you try to borrow a book from a librairie without paying… If you want to borrow a book without engaging in criminal activity, you need to find yourself a bibliothèque.

Patron – If you are a patron in France then you are the boss, whereas in England you are a client or customer; completely different ends of the spectrum.

Chauffeur – This word is a partial false friend as it can have the same meaning in both French and English but in French can also mean any driver, whether employed to do so or not.

Porc – If you like your meat then you will recognize the relation between this word and the English version, pork. In France it also means the pig itself and pigskin. Another partial false friend.

Actuel – A very common false friend which in French means current or present, not real or authentic as in the English word “actual”.

Préservatif – The final false friend in this list is one that you definitely wouldn’t want to get confused. If you’re looking at the word and thinking of the English “preservative” then think again. In French if you’re asking for a préservatif you are asking for a condom.

From these examples alone you can see how easy it is for confusion to occur, so always be aware of false friends. Any other common false friends (or more interesting, funny ones!) you’ve come across in French/English translation? Feel free to leave a comment!

Better (trans)late than never…

First of all, apologies for the awful pun. It’s probably not the best way to begin your first ever blog but my thinking was that, from that initial low, the only way is up… and that can only be a good thing, right?!

As mentioned, this is my first ever blog; but why now? I guess now is really the first time I feel that there is something that I am really passionate about, and about which I have something valuable to say; I’ve spent the last few years really getting into translation theory, careering through all that translation studies has to offer and exploring the profession. But anyway, we’re getting ahead of ourselves..

I can’t realistically expect to say too much with this first blog and so I just wanted to say a little bit about myself and what it is that I do. For starters, I’m a freelance translator working from French and Italian to English, I completed my degree in French and Italian a few years ago now, lived in France and Italy and then went on to study an MA in Translation Studies which was brilliant. Quite simply, I’m a translation fanatic.

It wasn’t always that way though and looking back even a couple of years I’d have to admit that I didn’t even know what translation was! Of course, we all have an idea of what it involves and after four years of language study I thought that I had a better idea than most, but it wasn’t until I started my MA that I really started to realise ‘wow, there’s a lot more to this than learning the language and sitting in front of your laptop with a nice, big dictionary..’

Unfortunately, that is the view that many people have and that was pretty much my view after finishing my degree as I naively decided that I would start out in translation. I could speak the languages, I could rite quite gud, what more did I need? Surely it was just a matter of finding the one-to-one equivalent of each word and mixing it up a bit so that it sounded passable in English…

The idea that what you are producing is a text which must function in a desired way in a specific part of a culture alien to the original text hadn’t crossed my mind. Considerations of ethical issues, fidelity to clients, authors, readers, the way the translation industry actually works, the implications of your decision to translate a certain term in a certain way, all meant nothing to me.

Of course I realise that all of this raises many more questions than it answers, and in a way that was the aim of the exercise. If people start to question what is involved in translation, then that is a great thing. Proper training is absolutely vital for the translation community to earn the respect it deserves and hopefully I can begin to demonstrate some of the things that are at stake when translating with future blogs…

Here’s to hoping.