10 things I wish I’d known when I first started translating

I was extraordinarily wet behind the ears when I first started translating professionally in Spain over 20 years ago.

Although I’d studied literature translation at university as part of my BA language degree course, it was not an appropriate preparation for a career as a translator.

Here’s a list of 10 things I wish I’d known when I first started translating that would have made my life much easier.

1 Don’t translate everything

My first big mistake (unfortunately made by many other translators at that time, but hopefully less so now) was assuming I’d be able to translate everything. Especially if an agency client was pushing me to do just that.

I discovered my strengths and weaknesses by dabbling in a variety of fields (financial, legal, medical, technical, etc.) with mixed success. I should definitely have learned to say “No” far sooner than I actually did.

2 Specialise

But refusing jobs you’re not particularly good at is not enough. You need to actively specialise.

Perhaps the best way to become a specialist is to have a degree in the subject and/or relevant work experience (sadly, not my case). Instead I have opted to improve my writing and editing skills by reading, studying courses, attending webinars, workshops, etc., and now offer translations and revisions in tourism and academic papers (humanities and social sciences).

3 Record terminology

Given that it can sometimes take hours to hit on the right translation, not keeping a proper record of terms in a place where you can easily find them again is extremely foolish. Thinking I didn’t have a couple of minutes to note them down immediately (deadline pressure) and would do it later (forgot/sidetracked) has inevitably wasted time during later projects as I’ve had to search again.

I’m sure colleagues use a variety of methods for keeping track of vocabulary. I just produce lists in a Word document. My Abbreviations, Acronyms & Initialisms list is already on the blog and other files (verbs & nouns, adjectives & adverbs and linking words) are also available to download.

4 Look everything up

On the subject of terminology, look up everything you’re not 100% sure of. Plumping for the first option that pops into your head might be acceptable but not the best fit in the context. Exploring other possibilities in dictionaries and thesauri often leads to better results.

Although I don’t double check everything now as years of experience have consolidated my knowledge, I wish I’d started this process earlier. Because, undoubtedly, the more you learn, the more you realise you don’t know. Which is scary, since it means my early translations were littered with embarrassing errors.

5 Don’t translate every word

Don’t translate every word in the source text (this is true for the languages I’ve had some experience with). In Spanish, for example, a lot is fluff that can be ignored. “They proceeded with the implementation of XYZ” is just: “They implemented XYZ”. “I would like to highlight that these cases are abnormal” can be translated as: “These cases are abnormal”. Many of the linking words used in academic papers can also be left out.

When I first began translating for agencies in Spain, we were usually paid by target word. Obviously, this meant there was little incentive to avoid being wordy in our translations. Once I got thoroughly fed up of earning less every time I made an edit, I asked the agencies to switch to source word counts. Luckily, all bar one did, which I then promptly stopped working for.

6 Don’t copy text structure

Don’t always mirror the text structure either. Break up long sentences, join others together. Similarly, some paragraphs that are too long may benefit from being split into two or three. And some shorter paragraphs can be combined.

This is difficult to achieve in a CAT tool, which is why it’s important to spend time on the editing phase after exporting the document.

7 Don’t copy source punctuation

Don’t blindly follow the punctuation in the source. For starters, writers can make mistakes that you don’t want to reproduce in your translation. Often we can use dashes instead of brackets or vice versa. How colons, semi colons, commas, quotation marks, etc., are used is not always the same, or copying their usage in the source is not always advisable.

Using punctuation properly is still something that can trip me up, which is why I often spend time searching for explanations and examples in style guides (The Economist, New Oxford Style Manual, Butcher’s Copy-editing, The Chicago Manual of Style, etc.).

I’ve also examined some of the errors I’ve noticed in my editing work in instalments of the Bite-sized Tips series (you might find Quotation Marks or Italics interesting).

8 Don’t copy conventions

On that note, don’t copy the use of other conventions either. Numbers can be especially tricky, which is why I recently posted a three-part series on them.

The main takeaway of points 4 to 8 is to think in English. When I first began translating, I wasn’t able to distance myself enough from the source because I lacked the confidence, knowledge and experience to do so. And although I feel there’s still loads of room for improvement (which is why I continue with my CPD), I’m undoubtedly heaps better than I used to be.

9 Read work out loud

That leads me to the penultimate wish: reading my work aloud to ensure it sounds simple, natural and understandable (because if you don’t understand what you’ve written, your reader won’t either). It’s a tip many bloggers have shared and which I didn’t come across until years after I first began as a translator.

These days there’s even a Read Aloud feature in Word under the Review tab that will read it to you. It’s a great way of spotting mistakes that can be hard to miss as we tend to read what we expect to see on the page rather than the typo we’ve actually written.

10 Learn to let go

And the final mistake I’ve made is not knowing when to let go on two levels.

Firstly, if you’ve come up with a brilliant turn of phrase, but it doesn’t quite fit, save it for another day and think again. I’ve had to delete many first drafts because, despite sounding great, they ultimately didn’t say what the author intended.

And secondly, I’ve had to learn when a translation is good enough to send to the client. When you can stop reading it through or fussing about a word choice. Since we could argue that a translation is never really finished as we could tweak parts ad infinitum, finding that medium where you’re happy to click send can be a hard task indeed.

Images (in order) by Kranich17, Free-Photos and PDPics from Pixabay

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15 thoughts on “10 things I wish I’d known when I first started translating

  1. Very useful post, Nikki, thank you. I agree especially about the read-through, and was wondering only yesterday whether I could use Word’s read-aloud feature, but the trouble is that I think the reference numerals after virtually every noun in the description of a patent (since that’s what I usually translate) would probably flummox it, and I prefer to have it done by a human for intonation and comprehension purposes – a human can always go into reverse when they realise they’ve misread something (“record” as a verb vs. “record” as a noun, for example), which I assume software can’t.

    “My first big mistake (unfortunately made by many other translators at that time, but hopefully less so now) was assuming I’d be able to translate everything.”

    Hmm, “hopefully”, yes, but in reality I’m not so sure: I still see examples of newbie translators who appear to have bitten off more than they can chew, sometimes even after doing a specific translation qualification. I think it’s a bit like passing your driving test: that doesn’t make you an expert driver, it only authorises you to go out on the road on your own and start (we hope) acquiring some level of expertise.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Alison, yes, the “Read Aloud” feature is quite stilted, doesn’t get the pronunciation right all the time (as you say) and all the numbers would definitely interrupt the flow. It can be handy as another way to check a text, though.
      I agree with you. I think in general translators are better than they used to be 20 years ago about accepting everything under the sun. And hopefully that will further improve (highlighting the issue is one of the reasons for this post).


  2. Great post, Nikki!

    Number 2 is definitely one of my biggest mistake (not actively specialising from day one and thinking that “a degree and an MA are more than enough to earn a decent leaving, thank you very much”). Now I’m addicted to CPD courses…

    But my major mistake was not realising the importance of networking and keeping in touch with both clients and colleagues on a regular basis. I’ve burned so many bridges without realising how crazy that was. As an introvert and stubborn loner, I wished someone taught me earlier on how to build and maintain network of people.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The read-aloud feature saves me every time I’m doing the last revision of my books. (Even if the voice is really artificial).

    It’s great to hear someone with your experience talk about their mistakes. Not specialising and accepting everything under the sun in the beginning is definitely one of them (guilty).

    We are very lucky nowadays to have CPD on how to run a business, network and develop our services.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Although it’s perhaps only in the past decade or two that CPD opportunities have really boomed. With the incredibly wide range of technical subject-matter which you find in patents, I really used to struggle to find any CPD which was really appropriate for me, in terms of depth and spread, until relatively recently. For example, last month I was translating a nutrition-related patent: I may never do one on the same subject again, or alternatively, who knows, I might find myself inundated with similar texts in the future, so is it worth doing any CPD on the subject? I don’t know. It’s a bit like buying a specialist dictionary because you’ve been doing a lot of a particular subject – there’s no guarantee the work won’t dry up again in the future and you’ll have wasted your money (yes, it’s happened to me before).

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting post, thanks. It’s always good to read about what other translator’s experience. I certainly see a lot of similarities here in the experiences I’ve had. Very informative. Keep up the good work!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. In the 5th point, what if the client wants everything needs to be translated in the target language. Do you think explaining them is a good idea or you just do as he said.


    1. Hi Rahul, some clients will always know better and will insist on you translating a certain way. If you’ve pointed out to them that how you’ve translated the text sounds better and that any “omissions” are not mistakes but have been made for idiomatic purposes and the client still won’t budge, then it’s best just to do as they say. The client is, after all, paying for the services. However, working for this type of client is obviously not fulfilling, so if you can replace them by another, that’s probably the best course of action.


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