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!