The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Translators
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The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Translators

Ever since the Tower of Babel, we’ve been struggling to communicate with each other. Translators go a long way towards restoring our connections, but written translation has its own particular challenges that spoken translation does not. The eventual reader doesn’t have the luxury of gauging the tone of a speaker’s voice or watching expressions. These are a few habits for translators of the written word to develop so that even when the words change, the intent does not.

1. Find a Template

Translating an apartment lease form? Medical reports? A will and trust? It’s helpful not only to know the words involved, but the typical format and flow of a similar document. The layout of a quarterly report on stock performance may look a certain way in Belgium, but American corporations may find it easier to take in the information another way. It’s not necessarily just a matter of how the information is broken up into sections; these similar documents may have certain phraseology that sounds more natural to the reader that you can substitute in lieu of a more clunky literal translation.

2. Check the Meaning

A conversion dictionary for the languages you’re shuttling between is a must. But monolingual dictionaries are equally as important. Once you’ve figured out the actual translation from one language to another, the monolingual dictionary helps make sure there aren’t any uncomfortable nuances in the language you’ve gone to. Imagine an Outward Bound proprietor in the Bavarian Alps, wondering why his clientele of English-speaking hikers has dropped off precipitously since his last marketing campaign. Alas, the German translator he employed used an ill-fated literal translation of liechensack, and rather than encouraging hikers to “bring your own backpack,” they were invited to “bring your own body bag.” A glance through an English dictionary could have kept business alive!

3. Translate the Translation

It is helpful sometimes—particularly for a turn of phrase that you’re translating for the first time—to check your work. This is one instance where using an online translation site like Google Translate or WordReference may help see if you captured the original phrase properly. Shortly after Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith was released on DVD, an Internet blogger posted screenshots from a version purchased in Shanghai. The film script had been translated into Chinese, then back into English subtitles, with questionable results. George Lucas’ sprawling space opera was now apparently a swimmer’s instructional video titled Backstroke of the West. It may not have been cost-feasible for the script translator on the Star Wars job to double check every line, but seeing how the title is a pretty important part of the advertising process, it might have behooved him to throw “backstroke” into an online translator and make sure is came out with “revenge” on the other side—or at least something close to that original word.
Note: While we’re mentioning online translation sites, it should be added that these should be used sparingly. In the Star Wars saga, C-3PO boasts of being fluent in six million forms of communication. Yet he has a wonderful quote where he laments, “Sometimes I just don’t understand human behavior.” That line is a great illustration of the fact that machine translators are woefully inept at deciphering human meaning. Useful for an unknown word or phrase? Yes. Useful for an entire document? Not as much.

4. Know the Culture

In 1992, President George Bush made headlines for a rather unfortunate vomiting incident at a Japanese state dinner. What was less well-documented was the Japanese government’s aversion to the president’s demands regarding imports of US-made cars. Japanese business culture has various levels of discourse; there is polite language and super-polite language, depending on the hierarchy of the individuals involved. Direct demands are usually taken poorly. Other cultures have their own sense of what is considered insulting—or gauche—with spoken or written language, so develop your awareness of a country’s etiquette in various situations and be sensitive about the words and phrases you use.

5. Beware the Idiom

This isn’t transcription, where a verbatim presentation is often par for the course. A word-for-word translation doesn’t always get the job done, particularly for idioms. A literal translation of “par for the course” into Serbian, for example, would be a nonsensical phrase for a country where, as of 2011, there were fewer than five golf courses. Go without idioms unless you’re confident of the reader’s ability to identify with them, or—if the project does call for more colloquial turns of phrase—find a suitable substitute in your own language. When translating a story about a Swedish carpenter with “tummen mitt i handen,” and you don’t want to confuse (or terrify) readers with a literal description of a man with a “thumb in the middle of his hand,” recognize that it’s just the Swedish expression for being clumsy and substitute the similar American expression: “all thumbs.”

6. Develop a Specialty

Translation work is no different than a lot of professions in the sense that specialization allows you to take on higher-paying jobs. There are scads of foreign publications online that can help you bone up on field-specific words in the particular milieu that interests you—the Chilean political paper La Tercera, the Belgian radio and television magazine HUMO, the Russian Open Medical Journal ROMJ, or the Romanian weekly financial magazine Capital, just to name a few. It doesn’t matter whether you focus on biochemistry or the fashion industry, you may find in the end that you’ve become a much more attractive employee. In the latter case, perhaps even in both senses of the word!

7. Make it Beautiful

Remember that words have not only meaning, but power. A position paper needs to convince, a story needs to captivate, advertising copy needs to entice. Go beyond the simple by-the-numbers translation and seek to convey the emotion of the original writer. When Roberto Begnini brought his eventual Oscar-winning drama La Vita è Bella to cinemas in the United States, translators could have stuck with the basic definition for “bella” on Google Translate and called the film Life is Nice. Or they could have used Babylon and found the options Life is Pleasant or Life is Fine. But they settled on a final choice that conveyed the charm of the film and the deep and powerful emotions displayed on screen: Life is Beautiful. For the most important phrases and sentences of your translation job, find the right word for the emotion—maybe not the most literal translation, but the most beautiful option.