How to start translating (for the very beginner)

Translation as a profession sneaks up on a lot of translators. It starts out that you learn/know a second language, live in a foreign country for a while, or have a general interest in international events or culture. You work hard at some job or coursework, but something is missing. There’s a certain part of your brain that you just know you should be using, but aren’t. And little by little, you figure it out: communication. Across borders. Across cultures. Across languages. Aha!

But how do you go from professional fill-in-the-blank to professional translator? Easy! You just have to start translating. I know, I know—easier said than done. But here, I’ll share my simple work process to help guide your first forays. One step at a time, and you’ll soon be a translating pro!

  • Pick a text, any text. A paragraph or two in your source language is plenty.
  • Read the text once, then read it again. Just try to get a feel for the overall message. Jot a quick summary if it helps.
  • Mark every break in each sentence to help you visualize what adjectives refer to what nouns, what phrases modify what predicate, etc. For instance,// in this sentence// I marked// every important break// for you// with double slashes. This is more helpful than you might expect! (I still do this when I come across particularly complex or long-winded sections of projects.)
  • Underline any word or phrase whose meaning is unclear, causes you confusion, or makes the surrounding sentences difficult or impossible to understand. You can do this during one of your initial read-throughs, if you like.
  • Use your dictionaries (yes, plural) and other resources to hunt down the meaning of everything you underlined. Be sure to verify your conclusions; always get a second opinion from a different resource.
  • Write your first draft. It will be much easier now that you have the most confusing parts worked out, though you might come across a surprise or two yet. Don’t forget to edit!

Following this workflow should help you start to think like a translator. I’m not saying this is how every pro works—I can only vouch for my own habits (and even those vary by mood and text type). But focusing on these smaller tasks will reveal subtleties in the language and clarify areas that a basic reader might gloss over. I hope it helps!

How do you approach a new translation? Have any advice for other beginners?

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2 thoughts on “How to start translating (for the very beginner)

  1. Pingback: Generalize. It’s a good thing. | translation, untangled

  2. Pingback: Managing your glossaries with Excel | translation, untangled

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