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.
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.).
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.
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