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!


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

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?

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue {book review}

John McWhorter is a regular contributor of language commentary for the masses with a special interest in the evolution of creoles and grammar. Though not infallible, he offers a great deal of accessible information about language to a broad audience. You might have heard about some of his other books like The Power of Babel and What Language Is.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue book cover

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English is McWhorter’s treatise on the various roots of the English language and how it got to be what it is today. This book is a great general introduction to the many ways languages can change, with English being an all-encompassing case study. (He uses plenty of examples from non-English languages to help illustrate his points, too.) Think of it as an English-language, slightly more academic answer to The Story of French.

McWhorter’s style is plain enough for non-scholars (or non-native speakers) to enjoy, and intelligent enough for language professionals to appreciate it, too. I especially enjoyed his multi-lingual humor. For example, in his gentle push for the grammar police to just, he reminds them:

Shitte happens (pg. 182).

My only quibble with Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue comes up in chapter 4. All of a sudden, the book turns into a rant against Whorf’s hypothesis on language and thought. Whereas previous chapters skimmed merrily along, flitting from one reasoned argument to the next, keeping a lively rhythm and pace, this chapter plunged me into a bog of antagonism against a man who has been dead for over seventy years. After a decent sample size of pages for review purposes, I exercised one the basic rights of every reader and skipped ahead.

That incident aside, I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the development of English through McWhorter’s writing. It was fascinating to learn how language history can be pieced together over gaps in written record. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue also offers a great review of English grammar, explaining the reasons behind some of our more mysterious writing rules.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue book cover

To purchase a copy of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, click here (or seek it out at your favorite book store).

For additional reading on language changes and “bastard tongues,” try this book recommended by Catherine Smart (@Smart_Translate).

Note: This post contains some affiliate links, which means if you purchase something from Amazon after clicking through from this post, I receive a very small commission for your purchase. It does not affect your purchase price, nor my affection for your readership.

Upcoming CPD opportunities: Spring 2014

seedlings growing

Here are some low-cost opportunities to learn more about your subject matter and hone your skills this spring:

And three classes offered by the law faculty of the Sorbonne (in French), from the blog Words to Deeds.

If you don’t see something here that piques your interest, I encourage you to at least check out the different course providers. Local translator and client associations, MOOC providers like Coursera and FutureLearn, and local colleges or universities offer hundreds of different ways to improve your understanding of your specialty subject matter, source language, target language, business practices… I could go on forever.

Happy studying!


Corpus linguistics research tool

I’ve been talking quite a bit about ABBYY FineReader this month, but today let’s look at something completely different.

cartoon ant

AntConc is “a freeware concordance program for Windows, Macintosh OS X, and Linux.” Which means that it is a free software tool you can download to pretty much any computer to explore words in context. It was created by Laurence Anthony of Waseda University for corpus-based research.

Tutorials for how to use this software are available on YouTube and elsewhere. Scroll down this page for a long list and take your pick. We’ve been using this program in the FutureLearn Corpus Linguistics course. As someone who had almost no experience with either corpus linguistics or the tool in advance of this class, I can tell you, it is simple to use if you just watch the tutorials.

This glossary I shared earlier might be useful for deciphering some of the tricks it can do. Basically, you can use AntConc to analyze word use within a body of texts according to:

  • frequency of a word;
  • frequency of the words that are used in connection to a certain word; and
  • patterns of use of certain phrases.

In its most basic application, you can use AntConc as a monolingual, context-based dictionary of sorts (much like many translators use the bilingual website Simply search for a single word and see how it was used by other authors. Take it one step further, and language teachers have an easy way to get real-life examples of word usage for demonstration to their students (or test creation). One more step further, and you can turn your body of work into plaintext files and find out, objectively, what topics you translate most often. And so on!

Click here to download AntConc to your computer and begin exploring your languages.

CPD in the new year: corpus linguistics course

FutureLearn (similar to Coursera) and Lancaster University are offering a free online class explaining the methodology of corpus linguistics. It is geared towards “researchers in social sciences and humanities”—I think translators easily fall into that group of people, don’t you?

Sign up here if you’re interested in learning more about how corpus-based linguistics works. The course will last 8 weeks beginning in the end of January, with an expected work load of about 3 hours per week. That’s not much to ask of someone who uses corpora on a daily basis! (Linguee, I love you.)

Hat tip to Nathalie Reis for first sharing this on Twitter.

So Long a Letter

So Long a Letter, English cover

I’m back! Thanks for your patience while I finished packing, unpacking, and taking care of the many little things involved in a cross-country move.

During those couple weeks without an office or much internet, I took great pleasure in diving back into my ever-growing stack of must-read paperback books. One of the first on my list was So Long a Letter, written by Mariama Bâ in 1979, as translated by Modupé Bodé-Thomas.

I received a copy of So Long a Letter (Une si longue lettre, in the original French) in a books-in-translation exchange hosted a few months ago by the National Capital Area Translators Association. A young literary translator brought it, having thoroughly enjoyed the text while in a college course. I can see why she liked it so much!

Bâ offers a unique view into the private world of a Senegalese woman whose life holds quite a few twists. With the “background” of her husband, a Senegalese nationalist, helping the country break from colonial rule, the protagonist, Ramatoulaye, must adjust as he also breaks from her—choosing a young girl as a second wife and ultimately abandoning his first. While Senegal learns how to live without colonial powers, Ramatoulaye learns how to live without a husband in a culture in which that is not the norm.

Though a short read, So Long a Letter is packed with cultural details unique to Senegal, as well as pure universal human emotion. Modupé Bodé-Thomas produced an elegant translation, balancing lengthier, poetic French-like sentences with shorter punctuations more in keeping with English-language style. It is an engrossing tale. I recommend it for anyone interested in African politics or culture, feminism, family dynamics, or children’s rights—there’s something in this for almost anyone. Happy reading!

What books have you read in translation recently? Have you read this African text yet? What did you think about it?

How to stay on top of your industry news efficiently

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a huge fan of newspapers. I still scan a few 2–3 times a week, but most of the news lately is either a rehash of a popular story, poorly written, or totally irrelevant to me. So, I’ve developed a few tricks to keeping up on the news while minimizing discomfort. My best advice if you feel the same about it:

  • Sign up for a few mailing lists (or a few dozen). Do you have an ideal client in mind? Find the RSS feed button on their website or submit your email address to receive their newsletter. Is there a particular country you want to focus on? Visit their embassy website and ask to receive news about events, speeches, etc. Even if 80% of the briefs they send aren’t relevant to you, it’s a good way to keep your eye on what they think is important. It’s always easy to unsubscribe later.
  • Follow targeted news sites or specialists in the field on Twitter. They generally just use their accounts to post headlines one at a time, which makes it easy to see what’s really news. Sometimes they put together digests using tools like to gather up current news related to one topic. Used this way, Twitter becomes like an RSS feed without the restrictions of what you say you want to hear about—keeping your eyes and ears open to important news outside of a few keywords.

These are just a few ways to go beyond scanning the Wall Street Journal (or newspaper of choice) every day. You’ll have access to the same information that your ideal clients get in their inbox or mailbox, not to mention continuing professional development opportunities in non-language subject areas. It’s all helpful for initiating conversations at industry-related events.

What other ways do you access industry-specific information? How do you stay on top of the news?

Legal language: What is an MFN clause?

If your work is in any way connected to antitrust law, you may have heard a lot recently about MFN clauses. Most-favored-nation clauses are at the heart of an Apple-Amazon court case in which Apple has been accused of conspiring with 5 top publishing companies to fix the prices of e-books. (This DOJ press release on the case was issued on Friday, August 2.)

Let’s talk about what the heck MFN clauses are, anyways. Why use the word nation in a clause between businesses? The term comes from a principle of non-discrimination in world trade agreements, whereby no country may offer special prices to another without also extending the favor to other nations bound by the same trade agreement. Sounds reasonable in this context, right?

In contract law, a most-favored-nation clause is defined as

a contractual provision in which a seller guarantees a buyer that it will receive prices that are at least as favorable as those provided to other buyers on the same products or services. [source]

For a long time, this clause was considered fair under US law. But all that has changed…

Apple vs AmazonThe Wall Street Journal has a great summary article of the Amazon- Apple case here. (This isn’t the only case against MFN clauses—they have been contested in the healthcare and automotive industries, too.)

In brief, when Apple entered the e-book market, it had a hard time competing on price against Amazon, then the e-book retail leader. Apple decided to let publishers set their own price for e-books, unless a better price was found on the market. Then, the publishers would have to eat the loss, giving Apple their e-books for the lowest marketed price available. Apple could thus compete on price without reducing its own profit margin. As a result, these publishers decided to amend their contracts with Amazon, too, to limit their own losses—or else they would cease supplying Amazon with popular, new e-books.

It’s rather difficult to feel much sympathy for Amazon, given the way it has used prices to force the publishing market to change in recent years. However, sympathies aside, this case is quite significant. As noted in the WSJ article above:

“Defendants in antitrust cases have liked to have the sound bite that no court has found an MFN to be anticompetitive,” said Mark Botti, a former Justice Department antitrust lawyer now in private practice. “They can no longer say that.”

From the facts and timelines in this case, it is clear that MFN clauses can be used to manipulate markets as a way around price fixing regulations. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of these cases cropping up over the next year or so.