An unconventional approach to translation

Firstly, a disclaimer: I’m not a trained translator. I’m well aware that my approach to translation is not how translators typically work. I have worked with several professional translators in the past, so I know my approach is not the standard.

But, over the last several months a few people have asked me to explain how I have been able to translate quickly and well.

Translation - computers requiredI’ve been translating regularly and professionally for a little over a year now. Mostly it’s been for blog posts, help documentation and websites in the IT fields, with a few medical papers and legal documents thrown in.

I’m awaiting feedback on the legal translations, and will update this post once I hear the reviewers’ thoughts.

No translation memory tools

I don’t use the traditional translation tools that support the process (like TRADOS). These are awfully expensive for a freelancer, and are typically not warranted for the type of ‘small’ jobs that I do. They may be more useful to translators working on books, large interfaces or a large documentation collection.

Translate in place

I hate having to copy-paste and re-format the resulting messy text. Too much time wasted with a high data-loss risk! It’s quicker to translate in the location/tool/software where the end product will be published.

This also means I don’t miss sections – I translate a paragraph at a time (or a sentence at a time in the case of the more difficult legal and medical documents).

Only into your native language

It is an unwritten rule that you only translate into your native language. I have to agree with that. My written German is terrible (B2), and my written Japanese is non-existent, not to mention terribly rusty as I haven’t been back to Japan for several years.

But I can understand enough at a B1-B2 level – sometimes with help for idioms and the like – to translate from these languages into English.

Do you have to be 100% fluent in the source language to translate into your native language? I don’t believe so.

Translate in familiar fields (mostly)

Most of my translation work is in IT, and more specifically with knowledge management and software development tools. With a computer science degree and work experience in the technical documentation department of a software company, that makes translation so much easier – I already know the jargon I need to use.

The occasional medical translation takes advantage of my history with doctors and chronic illness – reading a mountain of scientific studies in PubMed, teaching English to a handful of doctors, and having edited a number of medical papers for specialists helped.

Translation is much slower and more painful in an unfamiliar area. The first legal translation I did (two documents), took about ten times longer than usual and gave me massive headaches from the amount of concentration required. It’s currently under review, so I don’t (yet) know, how accurate I was.

Lean on tools (and a native speaker) for translation support

Because I’m not completely fluent, there are words and phrases that simply do not make sense when I first read them. I do use a variety of online tools, as well as ask for the occasional hand from a native speaker, but I never copy the results verbatim.

You do need to be aware that there are common quirks to a language that can confuse automatic translations and dictionaries (e.g. no plurals in Japanese, various cases in German, prepositions in all languages).

  • Google Translate is great for giving you the gist of what something means. Of course, it’s better at some languages than others.
  • Linguee has been especially useful to see how tricky short phrases have been translated by others.

An unconventional translation approach

  1. Read it through quickly.
  2. Copy the source into the target location.
  3. Edit/translate images and take screenshots.
  4. Translate each paragraph, pasting it into Google or putting phrases into Linguee to speed up understanding, but write it in your own words, from scratch. Edit each paragraph as it’s written to make sure it flows.
  5. Read it aloud to make sure it flows and to proofread (silly typos and formatting errors are my weakness).
  6. Get someone else to proofread.
  7. Publish.

Don’t multitask!

Even more so than writing, translation benefits from focus and flow. You can’t successfully translate when you are being constantly interrupted by messages, phone calls or other distractions. I even have to avoid music with lyrics – far too distracting!

Supporting skills and traits

Writing: Being able to write well and quickly is probably the most important skill I use when translating. I tend to edit as I go, so that I only need to proofread at the end. Reading what you have written aloud is useful to see if it makes sense and ‘flows’.

Curiosity: You need to be curious about both the languages you are working with, noting common quirks, idioms and sayings, and always looking to make phrases make sense. Being one of the people who always asks ‘why?’ is a good thing!

Teaching: A good teacher can take difficult concepts and make them easy to understand, for audiences with wide ranges of knowledge, experience, and learning styles. I’ve been teaching for 25 years now, and you’d be surprised how much I draw on my teaching skills (I can’t believe it’s been that long since my first music students!)

As a language teacher, you need to be able to paraphrase and make accurate guesses about the actual meaning behind jumbled sentences with the wrong grammar and word choices. Plus you need to be able to answer ‘why’ a lot when teaching!

A love of words: Writers don’t just write – they also read a lot. A translator is very similar to a writer in this respect. You have to love words, both producing and consuming them. Having said that, I don’t read all that often in German, but it is increasing.

How do you translate?

If you’re a professional translator, you are probably shaking your head at my approach. I’d love to learn more about your approach – how do you translate? What other skills do you make use of when translating?

Let me know in the comments!

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