Be a better translator: 10 tips to take you to the next level

By | April 24, 2018

Here are some tips to help you take your translation skills to the next level:

1. Develop your language sense

Your sense of language, for both the source and target languages, is one of the core things that drives the quality of your translations.

2. Read often

Reading from a diverse set of authors (again for both languages) is one of the best ways to develop your language sense. A rich reading history is a good start, but it isn’t enough. Once you start translating you will see things from a new perspective.

If you don’t have much time, focus on the genre(s) you are translating the most (or want to).

3. Read carefully

When reading, take time to analyze an author’s style: What makes it unique? How does the style help support the story?

When translating, it’s not usually possible to convey all aspects of an author’s style into a different language. But the parts in the source text whose style stands out are good candidates for trying to reflect that same style in some way in the target language. I’m sure you’ve read books where you are more captivated by the story and others where you are more dazzled by the author’s wordcraft (of course, both of these at the same time is ideal!)

You can also use reading as an exercise to hone your proofreading skills.

However, if you are in ‘analyze’ mode all the time, you’ll never finish a book, so learn to turn it off and on. Also, for studying an author’s style often a short story is sufficient, so if you are scarce on time use those.

4. Compare translations

Compare published translations sentence-by-sentence to their source text to get ideas for your own work. If this is the first time you are doing this, you may be surprised by the amount of non-literal renderings (though this depends on the translator). Think about why certain things were omitted or emphasized. Eventually, you’ll find areas you feel are mistakes, or at least areas that could be improved.

If you compare two different translations of the same source text, you may be surprised how diverse two different translator’s renderings can be. I did this for the first few paragraphs of two Japanese translations of Nineteen Eighty-Four (published decades apart), and it was very educational. (Of course, for a new translation to be published it would have to be different enough from any previous ones.)

5. Filter feedback

Feedback is, of course, a valuable tool to improve your translation skills, whether it is about the overall tone of a translation or a low-level analysis of individual words and grammar. But if you ask 100 people you’ll get 100 types of feedback, some in conflict with one another.

Learn whose feedback you trust and value that more. This could be because they are a published translator (or author), or just because you happen to like their own writing/translation style.

Don’t think of feedback as a way to improve a specific translation. Think of it as a way to develop your language sense (#1). The more your sense is developed (and you gain more confidence in your intuition), the less you’ll need feedback.

6. Translation has more than one ‘right’ answer

While some things (like proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation) have objective and clear-cut rules to a certain extent, once you get into the realm of style and flow there are many schools of thought (this is related to #5).

What is ‘accepted’ or ‘popular’ varies by genre and time period (not to forget region). Read up on selected works in the genre/period you are translating (#2, #3) and emulate aspects you think are appropriate in your own translation. You may have to adjust your translations to better fit the publisher/editor as well.

7. Write yourself

Being an author yourself will give you great practice to play with wording, sentence structure, and flow–all things you can directly apply to your translations. Not to mention that many of the books, articles, and other resources aiming to help writers can also help you write better translations.

8. Read out loud

Reading your translations out loud (a trick I learned from when I was polishing my own writing) is one of the best ways to catch grammar errors as well as more deeply feel the flow of a text.

Listening to professional narrators read in the source language can also help you gain a better understanding of the nuances of that language. It’s even better if you can find narrations of the works you are translating, especially to help get a better grasp of the nuances of the dialogue. (This is especially important if you are not using the source language on a daily basis.)

9. Iterate, iterate, iterate

I’ve tried to find shortcuts, but so far nothing compares to the power of raw iteration over a translation, both to chisel at the language and make it more natural, but also to try and get closer to the source text.

It may be difficult to compare against the source text on every iteration, but I recommend doing that at least two or three times. Once at the beginning (for the initial draft), once midway through, and once in the final editing stage. When trying to make the prose sound more natural you might inadvertently remove an important word, so it’s good to be safe.

To get something close to a publishable level of quality, I find it usually takes at least 5-10 iterations. I’m some cases I’ve done closer to 15-20. Make sure several of the final iterations have only the target text in view. Also, for the last few iterations make sure you are thinking in a ‘holistic’ sense, meaning you are looking at the work as a whole piece instead of a set of unconnected sentences of paragraphs. The paragraphs of the translation have to connect to each other as much as they connect to the source text.

The more you translate and iteratively refine your translations, the more you’ll get a feeling for when you are making less and less progress on each iteration. For me, I find that is right about the time when I end up switching wording back and forth between the same two options on successive runs (for example, “obtain” vs “acquire”).

Naturally, you will want to leave some time between each iteration (if the deadline permits), but I find it’s also good to do other related activities, like reading, in between. Sometimes when reading a book I will discover a word or phrase that improves part of a translation project I am working on or gives me more confidence about some technique or style I used.

10. Don’t forget the business side of translation

The above ideas are mostly about improving translations in an academic, ivory-tower sense. But it’s likely you are trying to actually get paid for translating (or want to someday, even as a side job). So don’t forget to polish your business-side skills: communicating with clients, selecting work that fits you, time management and understanding your translation speed, legal knowledge (copyright law, etc.), etc.

If you are used to the ivory-tower approach and suddenly you are in a situation where you have to deliver several projects on a deadline with quality, you may have to make compromises. However, I feel that learning to make quality translations and then learning to do that faster is more feasible than learning to make mediocre translations quickly and then improving the quality later. (This reminds me of chess in a way, playing slower games would make my faster (blitz) games better, but playing too many faster games tended to ruin my slower ones.)

(Note: See this article I wrote some time ago on a similar topic).


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