Ten Tips for Translators

notepad-117597By Holly Mikkelson

Whether you’ve had formal training as a translator or not, you may find these tips helpful for making your initial ventures into the profession a success.

  1. Before you begin translating a text, read it all the way through, without thinking about how to translate it into the target language, and get a general sense of what it’s all about, what the author’s perspective is, and how best to convey that message to a readership in the target language. If the text you’re going to translate is longer than 10 pages, just a quick scan will do, as long as you can determine the writing style, the topic(s) covered, and the author’s point of view. This first step should be done immediately after you receive the text, because you may discover that something is missing. In that case, you need to notify the client right away.
  2. Once you’ve determined the text type (birth certificate, business report, information brochure, advertisement, speech, short story, etc.), find parallel texts in your target language. Thus, if I’m going to translate a lease from Spanish to English, I’ll find English leases on the Internet and compare the terms and phrases used. They won’t all be perfect matches, of course, but after you’ve read enough documents of a similar type in your language pair you detect patterns of usage in each language.
  3. Assemble the printed and online references you need for the document in question — always including a good monolingual dictionary and thesaurus in each language, a comprehensive bilingual dictionary, corpora in both languages, and usage guides in your target language – in addition to any specialized dictionaries or glossaries you own or have access to on the Internet. Begin a new glossary in a spreadsheet program such as Microsoft Excel so that you can enter new terms as you encounter them in the translation. Include the source where you found the translation of the term (dictionary, website, etc.) for future reference.
  4. Begin your draft translation, without being too concerned about style at this point. Name the file according to the client’s instructions, if any, or give the file a distinct name so you can find it easily later on and won’t confuse the translation with the source text (“translation.docx” is not a good name to give a file!). Try to have large blocks of time available for translation so that you don’t lose continuity. It’s important to avoid distractions such as emails or phone calls while you’re working. If you have a long translation that you must work on for several days or even weeks, before you begin each day’s work, review what you’ve already translated so that you’ll get back into the flow.
  5. After you’ve finished your first draft, no matter how long or short the document is, set it aside for at least an hour (take a lunch break, switch to another task such as reading emails, or go for a walk). Leaving it overnight is even better. After that hiatus, read your draft again, without looking at the source text, and imagine that you are the end-user of the translation who is seeing it for the first time. Is it clearly written? Does it make sense? Does it flow smoothly (if applicable — obviously, if it’s an official form like a birth certificate, the fluency of the prose will not be a consideration). Are the spelling and punctuation correct?
  6. Proofread the text one more time to make sure you haven’t omitted a word, misspelled something (your spell checker may not catch everything), or made some other mechanical error. Reading the text backwards is a good way to catch mechanical errors, because your brain won’t fill in missing words or overlook repetitions of the same word (e.g. the at the end of a line, followed by another the at the beginning of the next line).
  7. After you’ve made any necessary corrections to the target language text, go back to the source text and check for accuracy and completeness, sentence by sentence. This is a critical step, because you may have skipped an entire paragraph in your draft translation, or transposed some digits in a figure, or omitted a negative and turned a no into a yes.
  8. If it is at all feasible, within the constraints of today’s I-need-it-yesterday deadlines, set the translation aside and read it one more time before delivering it to the client. It’s surprising how often major errors jump off the page as you give a translation a final read just before turning it in.
  9. After you’ve delivered the completed product, make up an invoice for your client. Many translators mistakenly put off invoicing because it’s such a tedious task, but if you let too much time go by, you may forget important details and delay payment. Be sure to follow the client’s instructions about including identification information such as purchase order or job numbers.
  10. Update your glossary to make sure it reflects your final decisions on terms, and save it on your computer. You may want to file it in a directory dedicated to glossaries, or keep your glossaries in separate directories by client, along with the source and target texts. Storing source and target texts and relevant glossaries in a systematic way is important for saving time in the future when you do similar translations. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself looking up the same terms all over again, without reaping any benefit from the hours you invested the first time. However, if your client asks you to destroy all copies of source texts after you’ve translated them in order to protect proprietary information, you must comply with that request, as well as adhering to any confidentiality agreements you have signed.

As someone who’s been translating for over 35 years, I’ve learned many of these lessons the hard way, and I still have to remind myself of them sometimes, lest I try to cut corners. As the old saying goes, “Haste makes waste.”


About the author: Holly Mikkelson is Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Translation and Interpretation, Monterey Institute of International Studies. She is an ATA-certified translator and a state and federally certified court interpreter, and has taught translation and interpreting for many years. She is the author of the Acebo interpreting manuals as well as numerous books and articles on translation and interpreting. She has been a consultant with many state and private entities on interpreter testing and training, and has presented lectures and workshops to interpreters and related professionals throughout the world. She was awarded the ATA’s Alexander Gode Medal in 2011.

10 thoughts on “Ten Tips for Translators

  1. Pingback: Upcoming Event: Triangle Area CATI Social, Plus a Newcomers’ Blog From the ATA | catiwebblog

  2. Although I have been providing ad hoc translation services in several jobs that I have had where translation was not my main focus, I have recently found myself becoming interested in freelance translation as a possible career change. This article was extremely concise and helpful. I will use the checklist item for item on the next translation I do. Thank you.

  3. I love this post . it helps me to get something new. I study English for 10 years , but not really good at using it , as I am always busy with some other things. But I do like English, Whenever I learn it , I feel very happy, just like listening my favorite music, no matter what it says. BTW, I am from China.

    • Amy, thanks for your comment. We are glad that this post was helpful to you! It is great to hear that you are enjoying learning English. Best of luck and we hope that you will continue to find The Savvy Newcomer a useful resource.

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