How to Be a Better Translator

If you’ve been translating for a while and feel stuck at your current skill level, I have good news! It’s likely not your translating that needs improvement—it’s your editing. All first drafts are terrible. No one thinks in perfect English (or French, or Swahili) when they’re focused on forming ground-breaking, substantive thoughts. And that’s OK! What wouldn’t be OK is to release that brain dump as a final product.

Unfortunately, editing seems to be an afterthought when we think about translation as a whole. After all, translators work from finished products, right? Well… only sort of. You may be working from completed ideas and logic chains, but you need to leave yourself enough time to clean up the parts that didn’t transition easily into the target language. Done properly, the editing process can take as much time or longer than getting the initial translation down on the page (screen).

behind books

You don’t have to learn editing to translate, or to translate well. Not one of the 20 professionals in my workshop at ATA58 had ever taken a formal class in revision before (and many of them have been translating for over 20 years!).  But if you want to improve your translations, you should strongly consider taking a course on how to improve your quality control.

In-person classes are often available through your local university or writers association. ATA offers my revision webinars on demand (here and here). Or, if your time is limited right now, I can personally recommend any of these books as a soft starting point:

I’m curious: Have you completed any training in revision? What resources can you recommend? Add your favorites in the comments below!


Revision Refresh Workshop – Last Chance to Register

There are just a few spots left in my editing workshop at ATA58. If you have never had formal training in copyediting or proofreading, consider signing up now for the 3-hour session on October 25th. 

You’ll get hands-on training for every stage of revision and walk away with several customized tools for your language pair(s) and subject matter specialties. We’ll discuss how to manage individual projects, long-term client styles, and team translations. There is a pre-workshop assignment you can do now, or turn it in after the live class for personalized feedback.

In this tech-focused world, quality revision makes your work stand above the machine output. Click here to register for AST-14 today: 

IRAC and Legal Translation

One of my major goals this year was to complete some intense subject-matter training. The in-person UC Davis certificate program in paralegal studies began in June. It’s been exhausting, and will continue to be up through mid-November, but I am already seeing returns on this investment.

Besides the study materials coming in handy at my day job at the law office, learning how lawyers think behind the scenes about their work has led to a major breakthrough moment in how I approach my legal translation projects!

upside down

American lawyers break pretty much every issue down to four headings: Issue – Rule – Analysis (Application) – Conclusion, or IRAC. It’s the preferred method for deciding whether to take on a case, drafting a letter or brief, and presenting an argument in court. For example:

  • Issue—Can I certify this translation?
  • Rule—In the US, anyone can certify a translation they produce by signing a declaration under penalty of perjury that they are qualified and have done their best work.
  • Analysis—I am qualified, did my best effort, and will sign a declaration to that effect.
  • Conclusion—Yes, I can certify this translation.

Now, I’ve translated quite a few divorce decrees in recent years; I know what laws to expect, the general order of the basic parts of the argument, and I know the terms of art to plug in. Last week, though, when I received another run-of-the-mill Hungarian divorce judgment, without even consciously considering what I was doing, I broke the Hungarian text down according to IRAC principles. It was like getting a new pair of prescription glasses—I thought I could see before, but it’s so much clearer now!

All of a sudden, not only do I understand what the words mean and how to render them in English, I also understand how the Hungarian judge was analyzing the parties’s request and facts to reach her decision.  In hindsight, the differences in the source text and a parallel American judgment make total sense, based on the differences I already know about the syntax of the languages. Hungarian sentences play with word order so that the part being emphasized comes first (think Yoda-speak: Hungry, I am!). The Hungarian legal argument followed a similar pattern. The basic structure is, “Regarding issue A, the conclusion is X, because of our analysis in light of Rule P.” Besides the issue, the decision is the most important thing in a court document. The American IRAC structure is turned to ICAR in Hungarian.

Figuring this out won’t outwardly change my translations—in legal translation, it’s a no-no to reorder the paragraphs—but it was certainly a fun surprise to read an everyday project in such a new way. If you’ve been on the fence about investing in some subject-matter training, dive in now!

What special training have you taken recently? How has your work surprised you lately? Share in the comments below!


Extracts of Record for Visa Purposes


A colleague and I were discussing translations of personal documents for visa applications recently, and I was surprised to learn that attorneys regularly ask her for form-based translations of birth certificates. Rather than have her produce a full, alternate-language copy of the original record, they want a data table filled out (similar to the new, multi-lingual extract of record in the EU). In all my years providing translations of birth, marriage, and divorce certificates, I have never had this request from any agency or direct client—and the news went against all my training.

According to both the US State Department website, and to my great relief, the attorneys are not technically correct to ask for this format change:

Translations. Any document containing foreign language submitted to the Service shall be accompanied by a full English language translation which the translator has certified as complete and accurate, and by the translator’s certification that he or she is competent to translate from the foreign language into English.

(emphasis added; source:

The USCIS website says the same thing:
11.3 Foreign Language Documents and Translations.
(a) Document Translations .
All documents submitted in support of an application or petition must include complete translation into English. In addition, there must be a certification from the translator indicating that the translation is complete and accurate and attesting to his or her competence as a translator. See 8 CFR 103.2(b)(3) .
(emphasis added; source:
USCIS notes that, for countries with lengthy and dense civil recording practices, the “keeper of a record” will sometimes issue an extract (a simplified or abridged version), which can be accepted as long as it comes from an official, authorized record-keeper and contains adequate information about the individual(s). Translators are only meant to provide complete and accurate translations of the record—not shorten it.
That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if these websites were maybe out of date, or (more likely) out of sync with actual practices used by civil servants to process requests.  The truth is, neither my colleague who translates into a form template nor I have heard of issues with the applications that use either of our methods. So now, I am curious…
What has your experience been? Have you been asked to translate a document into a different format? Have you had issues with providing translations for visa applications? Please share below!


Proofreaders’ marks

Thanks to everyone who participated in today’s webinar with the ATA! It was fun leading you through the creation of a proofreading system. I’ll be following up on some questions that came up afterwards over the next few days.

One participant asked, “Where can we download or get the proofreaders’ marks?” That’s an easy one, so here you go:

And a similar version from the Chicago Manual of Style:

Chicago Manual of Style proofreaders' marksHappy translating (and proofreading)!

Quality assurance training opportunity

A little bit of exciting news:

The American Translators Association is hosting a webinar with me on June 16th, 12pm (noon) EDT. I’ll present techniques and tricks for proofreading your work efficiently and effectively, plus some of the science behind why they work. Register here today!

Here’s a quick sampling of my reference materials:
Building Great Sentences, by Brooks Landon
The Fine Art of Copyediting, by Elsie Myers Stainton
The Organized Mind, by Daniel J. Levitin

For more information, click here. I hope you can join us!

On being a better translator

Welcome back from summer! Vive la rentrée!

This month, let’s look at professional skills and how to improve them—without taking out Masters-level student loans. Here are some translation skills I’ve already published about:

What would you like to learn about this month to improve your translation skills? What advice do you have to give?

Stretch your brain this fall

Bonne rentrée! Welcome back from summer.

Here are a few online classes to get your brain juices flowing again as the weather gets cooler. I can personally recommend the Corpus Linguistics class from FutureLearn. It offered so many great resources for thinking about language usage!

What other opportunities are on your radar? Share in the comments below!

bookshelf and heart

Language studies

Exploring English: Language and Culture

Corpus Linguistics: Method, Analysis, Interpretation

Understanding Language: Learning and Teaching


Business topics

Innovation: the key to business success

Next-level Business Bootcamp for expert translators

From solo to chorus: Outsourcing for beginners

Think again: How to reason and argue


Law topics

The Perils of Translating International Contracts

Introduction to Environmental Law and Policy

Revise, or re-translate?

One issue I notice translators love to complain about is being asked to revise someone else’s translation. I absolutely get the annoyance when it is clearly a request to improve a cheaper translator’s work after your quote was rejected as being “too late” five minutes after the initial email. Been there, felt the burn. I’m with you on calling that out as poor etiquette.

But, sometimes, I find translators using this as a blanket excuse to turn away editing requests from professionals who want to write in a non-native language. And that’s something I just don’t understand.

Revising a non-native speaker’s English (or French, or other written language) creates a win-win situation for you and for your client. The original author gets practice writing in a language they might need to use for other professional purposes. And it offers you, the translator, an ideal exercise for improving your revision process and watchlist.

Think about it: a non-native writer’s written language is a direct translation of a French, German, Kiswahili, namethelanguage thought. So, it offers an opportunity to observe real-time examples of subtle, concept-level translation mistakes that can easily slip into your own work unnoticed.

This idea is similar to how we [translators] use parallel texts to identify appropriate vocabulary/register/etc. Revising a non-native writer’s work allows you to be more neutral in how you approach the text, more analytical, and more open to asking, “Why did that happen?” Instead of poking holes in your own hard work, you can approach the revision process as a learning tool.

In French-to-English translation, for instance, I find myself making oddly negative sentences where a positive statement is needed—because that’s how the French write. In Hungarian-to-English translation, I’m always watching out for how I’ve used commas and transition words. There’s no shame in making these mistakes in your first draft, as long as you are aware of your typical “mistranslations” of grammar and punctuation and correct them in your editing passes.

Other common translation errors to watch for when revising, depending on your language pairs:

  • When to use definite versus indefinite articles
  • Errors in subject-verb agreement
  • Plurals—or unusual absences of them
  • Incorrect verb in metaphorical/abstract sentence (lexical misconception)

What grammar and lexical oddities crop up in your language pairs? How do you accommodate them your translation/revision process?

Building Great Sentences {book review}

Related to my post earlier this week on the Hemingway app, I’d like to recommend a great book to you about writing effective, clear prose using longer sentences: Building Great Sentences: How to write the kinds of sentences you love to read, by Brooks Landon.

Building Great Sentences book cover

The main purpose of this book is demonstrating how longer sentences can be both effective and interesting to readers of all kinds. It is not meant to be revolutionary—just a simple observation about memorable writing. Right from the beginning, Landon tells us:

Strunk and White do a great job of reminding us to avoid needless words, but they don’t begin to consider all of the ways in which more words might actually be needed. (17)

Longer sentences can be more effective for arguing a point. This is why we often see longer sentences in academic or legal texts. By including as many logic steps within a single sentence as reasonably possible, you are less likely to be misquoted or misunderstood, and more likely to retain your reader’s attention for the duration of your argument. If you ever had to write mathematical proofs during high school, you’ll remember that each individual line of the proof on its own meant very little—it was only when you put all the parts together that you had something significant to say.

Leading transitions (which I’ll leave to Landon to explain) in this type of writing pull your reader from one step to the next, essentially allowing them to take your thought journey alongside you. This can reveal quite a lot about your personality, your beliefs, and your motivations. Done properly, it humanizes you you far better than any snappy, quick marketing copy could.

pulling someone in

Long sentences can actually be more pleasurable to read than shorter ones. They “tease, surprise, test and satisfy” the reader’s intellect (4). They require more concentration and more attention from the reader—with the reward of understanding something better at the end. Comparing short to long sentences is like comparing a quick walk to the mailbox to a half-day hike. Which would be the more memorable to you?

That said, Landon never advocates for incomprehensibility nor for verbosity. As he says,

The most effective prose establishes a relationship between writer and reader. (128)

He offers practical exercises at the end of every chapter for you to practice putting these principles to good use. He also touches on metaphor, rhythm, balance, and suspense—elements which help you form your own style and natural pauses for your readers to process information within a single sentence. Examples from both fiction and non-fiction, male and female authors, academic and popular commentary help balance out his thesis.

Landon offers a great reminder that most writers have very good reasons for crafting sentences a certain way — even the longer, more convoluted ones. And if translated correctly, you can help that author their original thought into effective language for the target audience.

If you work with academic, legal, scientific, or other higher-level texts on a regular basis, I highly recommend Building Great Sentences as a way to improve how you analyze your source texts and transfer the original author’s decision to your translation. Your work can only benefit from understanding this aspect of language better.

Building Great Sentences book cover

Click here to purchase a copy of Building Great Sentences: How to write the kinds of sentences you love to read, by Brooks Landon.

Have you read this book before? What do you think of Landon’s ideas? What other books can you recommend for writers or translators who want to improve their work?