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Thursday, October 19, 2006

How to improve your translations?

How to improve your translations

Translation offers a rewarding if sometimes frustrating challenge. Here are a few tips to make your translating more enjoyable, more fluent and more successful.

These tips assume that you already have the basic equipment (good bilingual dictionaries, thesaurus, encyclopedia and basic computer skills).

What to do before starting
Research - the difference 30 minutes can make
How to make it sound natural
Does it sing?
Keep in touch
Know your limits
Read through it when it's done

What to do before starting

Read and understand the text you are about to translate from start to finish. Now go and make a cup of tea, enjoy the garden or have a good night’s sleep before returning to the text. Just as children need sleep to process all the exciting things they’ve been doing all day, I find translating more straightforward, more fluent and more enjoyable when I’ve slept on the source text before starting. If time is tight, however, you’ll just have to make do with a break.


Just 30 minutes (the more time you invest the better the translation) of research on the translation subject can make all the difference to the finished job. Visit a good target-language website on the subject and make written and mental notes about the kind of language used. This is also a good time to clear up any difficulties you discovered while reading through the text in step one.

How to make it sound natural

To be convincing it has to sound natural. As far as writing style is concerned, this is the most difficult part of all. The trick is to understand what the writer of the source language is saying, how he wants to bring it across and what the overall message is. If you have read through the text from start to finish, you will already know this. Now, with this in mind and while not leaving out any of the key pieces of information, write the same message in your own words. Don't be blinded by the words used in the source language. As translators, we have time to choose the right words for the perfect sentence.

Make it sing

Like all writing, the more the text sings, the more convincing, the more enjoyable and the more successful it will be. Use your thesaurus, be bold by adding “ing” to your verbs and nouns and don't be afraid to use a warm, comforting and reassuringly “English” introductory start to your sentence (some of my favorites here include 'indeed’, ‘to this end’, ‘moreover’, ‘as far as xxx is concerned’, ‘in terms of’ etc.).

Keep in touch

Because I translate into English but live in Germany, listening to English radio, reading English books and visiting English-language websites helps me to keep my translations fresh. Sometimes you can also adapt what you read and hear to good effect for your translations. A good example of this is the time I was struggling to think of a short catchy advertising phrase for a German hearing aid manufacturer. I came across a slogan in my local newspaper for a completely different product and, suddenly, the perfect slogan just came to mind: “...because hearing can be hard enough".

Be confident but know your limits

While it’s true, of course, that translation encompasses a huge spectrum of subjects and a wide range of styles, confident translation, that is, translation that is bold and brave enough to stray a little from the source text, will in most contexts turn out well. Translators, however, are rather like cricketers. There are good bowlers, good batters and good fielders, but there are very few really good all-rounders. Know your limits. Some translators I know can hit every complex legal text they come across for six. Yet give them a marketing text and they’re stumped! Unless you happen to be the Ian Botham of the translating world – play to your strengths.

Read through it when it's done

Ideally, you will have time to read through your translation the day after completing it. While this can be time consuming, it’s essential. You will find that taking the time to give your words, sentences and paragraphs the finishing touches will make all the difference. Never think you’re finished until you’ve read through it all again. And don't make my favorite mistake: forgetting the spellchecker.

If you have enjoyed reading these tips and found them helpful, you might want to consider linking to this page - just to give me encouragement you understand.