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!

Make proofreading less painful—literally

On the heels of my recent presentation at ATA55, I want to share some of my favorite tips for proofreading. I’ve already discussed the technical side of things here and here. Today, let’s get physical!

seated posture

Your body is an important tool for translation work. Sitting at a desk for long hours can be incredibly demanding of your muscles, joints, and skeleton. Taking a few minutes to learn about how to care for yourself while doing the work you love can help you keep doing it longer. Here are a few ideas:

  • Warm up your eyes before getting started. With your eyes closed, look up-down-left-right, and all around in both directions. Open your eyes and look at something far away. Repeat during breaks from your work every so often to protect your eyesight and avoid headaches.
  • Seriously, look away. Far, far away. The wall in front of my desk it totally blank on purpose. I also have a window to look out of. Use your long-distance vision to let the short-distance vision rest every so often.
  • Work with print materials on an inclined surface. This helps you maintain good seated posture and avoid contorting your neck in funny ways.
  • Practice good posture! Shoulders back and low, feet on the floor, pelvis tucked in a neutral position. If you need to work on this, try these yoga videos.
  • Use technology to your advantage: dictation and/or CAT tools for drafting, text-to-speech during some kinds of editing. Make templates for heavily formatted documents you get often (birth certificates, marriage licenses, academic records…). Your wrists and fingers will thank you.

What do you do to avoid the aches and pains of translation? Share your ideas in the comments!


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?

I die a little at this one

Have you seen the Hemingway app that’s been making its internet rounds recently? Click here to check it out. I’ll be here when you get back.

Hemingway “makes your writing bold and clear” by asking you to reduce the number of connections you make in each sentence, limiting the amount of information you convey to your reader per line. The premise of its algorithm is that shorter is better, because your reader has no time to think about the ideas you are presenting. It highlights longer sentences, adverbs, and passive voice so you can trim, hack, erase, and thereby “improve” your writing. Write to a tenth-grade education level and lower in order to win its approval.

This app makes me cry inside. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional use of passives! Longer sentences demonstrate mature thought processing! The app’s creators assert that following these guidelines helps you write more persuasively, but I beg to differ. Consider this:

Sometimes, you need long, complex sentences in order to capture the full train of thought you followed to your conclusion in one go, or else you risk your reader jumping off before it reaches the final station.

If I stopped that sentence at “complex sentences,” those of you who agree would nod and perhaps keep reading, but those of you disagree might just as easily stop. You would never read my reasoning and might forever assume that I’m prone to drawing conclusions based simply on ego. With the longer sentence, you are pulled forward into my argument by the phrase “in order to” because I immediately answer your question “why” (why should I care, why does that matter, etc).

Everyone has a unique style of writing, leaving  behind a characteristic thought marker like a thumbprint on a glass—ask a forensic linguist if you don’t believe me. That’s what makes communication interesting. Why would you want to homogenize that?

Thoughts? Comments? Can you think of a good use for this app? Share below!

Mistakes were made: Lillian Clementi on the passive voice {guest post}

Lillian Clementi is the Managing Principal of Lingua Legal (TM). She has over 15 years’ experience in translation, editing, and document review. She’s also known for her conference presentations on good writing and comparative style in French and English.

Lillian is certified by the American Translators Association for French-to-English translation. She also holds a German-to-English translation certificate from New York University; an M.A. in French, with a focus on translation, from George Mason University; and a B.A. in French from Loyola University.

Many thanks to Lillian for sharing her expertise with us today!

. . . . .

Mistakes were made.

This is the kind of passive sentence that can get you in trouble. The kind that Edward Johnson, author of The Handbook of Good English, calls “the pussyfooting passive.” The kind that makes style writer Patricia T. O’Conner say that “a passive verb can be the next best thing to a lie.”

In many cases they’re right: there’s no denying that the passive is overused, and it often offends not only against our moral sense―by allowing the actor to abdicate responsibility―but also against good style, by making text longer and harder for the reader to understand.

But the passive can also be very useful. Geoffrey K. Pullum, one of the co-authors of the The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, argues that “the passive is a perfectly useful and respectable type of clause; there is no merit in blanket warnings against it.” Even O’Conner concedes that it has legitimate uses.

Among them is what Johnson calls “the trouble-saving passive,” which he describes as “capable of expressing thoughts and shades of meaning that the active voice cannot express, and is even sometimes more compact and direct than the active voice.” Here’s an example:

Capone was arrested, tried, convicted, sentenced and sent to prison.

If what you need is a quick summary of what happened to Al Capone, this is a very elegant solution. Active voice would actually make the text longer, since we’d have to bring in a whole courthouse full of people—police, prosecutors, judge and jury. In fact, the English passive can be very useful and efficient in a variety of situations. As Johnson notes, “If the agent is too obvious, too unimportant, or too vague to mention, the passive is usually better.”

And there’s more. In Mightier Than the Sword: Powerful Writing in the Legal Profession, C. Edward Good lists a total of eight advantages of using the passive. For now, let’s focus on three.

  • Advantage no. 1: as we saw a moment ago with our friend Al Capone, the passive can streamline your writing by eliminating unimportant information.
  • Advantage no. 2: the passive can turn nouns into verbs when we don’t know the subject. This is a plus because―as we all know―English generally prefers verbs over nouns. Compare these two sentences:

Sorting of these articles is now underway.

These articles are now being sorted.

The first version here has what legal writing guru Bryan Garner calls a “buried verb”: the real action is in the subject (sorting), and the whole sentence is running on one anemic little auxiliary (is). The passive version resurrects the buried verb and buys us a cleaner sentence structure.

  • Advantage no. 3: the passive helps avoid the his/her problem. Take a look at this example:

Alternatively, the shareholder may receive the next-highest whole number of shares and pay the difference in cash on the date the option is exercised.

Make this sentence active, and politically correct English requires the tiresome “… on the date he/she exercises his/her option.” Not to mention that the shareholder could easily be an “it.” The passive allows us to dodge all of that, I think very neatly.

Bottom line: the passive is a perfectly legitimate and extremely valuable resource. Used well, it can actually make your writing simpler, cleaner and more elegant.

One last example:

The decision not to hand over power to the former opposition leaders … means the United States will occupy Iraq much longer than initially planned, acting as the ultimate authority for governing the country until a new constitution is authored, national elections held, and a new government installed. (Washington Post, June 8, 2003)

Here the passive is extremely economical, packing in a lot of information without making an already complex sentence more cumbersome, or getting away from the point―which is not to identify the actors, but to tick off a laundry list of the actions that need to be completed before the occupation can end. Try rewriting this in the active voice and see what kind of, um, quagmire you get into.