The “untangling” step in translation

A little while back, I read an article on legal translator training by Catherine Way that was a great reminder to do your research first. She defined the steps she teaches to help translation students with little to no legal background gain confidence in their legal translation abilities:

  1. Background research
  2. Terminology research
  3. Translation
  4. Revision

Your background research should answer some important questions: Who originally produced the text? Why? How? Even a simple birth certificate includes number codes describing the document’s place in an administrative process—a process you must understand before you decide whether to translate a word as “file number” versus “case number,” or “division” versus “department.”

Knowing who produced the original document can often lead to official websites that offer official translations, or at least better context for your particular piece of their work. More often than not, this helps you find verifiable, context-based choices for your terminology research—no dictionary required.

With Romance languages (for the into-English translators), the rest of the translation process goes pretty smoothly after completing your preliminary research. For Hungarian, personally, I always need an extra step:

  1. Background research
  2. Terminology research
  3. Literal initial translation
  4. The untangling step
  5. Revision

Hungarian both is and isn’t succinct. Or rather, its succinct-ness is what makes written Hungarian horribly unclear sometimes. There are lots of grammar markers to help you identify which nouns are subjects versus objects, but there aren’t always markers to show you where a clause ends. And it can be pretty hard to tell what a certain clause is modifying when you’re 4 strings deep with no predicate in sight.

In my rough draft stage, I’ve found it’s best to just leave the syntax alone. Don’t reorder yet. Let the translation “breathe” a bit, and somehow it becomes more intelligible later. Then, it’s just a simple matter of cutting clauses out and pasting them in the right order for an English-speaking brain. Phew! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used this trick for tough French legalese, too.

How do you tease out the meaning of complicated sentences? Feel free to share any good ones below (within the bounds of confidentiality, of course)!


3 thoughts on “The “untangling” step in translation

  1. In each stage of the translation process, there is a limit to how much you can do. If the text is of non-trivial complexity, there are many things to think about, so getting the first draft “good enough” to then revise and review later is likely to be the best you can do.

    And the more you try to do on each pass through, the slower you will be, and therefore the less you will remember of the immediately preceding context, which can result in repetitions or inelegant phrasing combinations across sentences and paragraphs.

    I go through a text normally about 5 times before the translation is finished.

  2. Pingback: On being a better translator | translation, untangled

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