The Whys and Hows of Translation Style Guides. A Case Study.

This post was originally published on the Financial Translation Hub blog. It is reposted with permission from the author.

Last week, a marketing manager of a global investment company called me. He was referred to me by a colleague. They are launching the company’s website in Italy and had it translated into Italian by a global translation company. However, they were not convinced of the Italian translation and asked me for an opinion and for a review.

I started reading the translations. I could not find big mistakes, such as grammar or spelling. The main issue was that the text sounded too much like a translation. Sometimes I could not even understand the Italian without reading the English source. This lead to various misinterpretations. Moreover, it was translated literally, and Website menus and buttons were too long for the Internet layout.

It was evident that nobody visited the English website before or during the translation process. You could understand it from naïve mistakes, where charts were confused with tables, buttons mistaken for menus, and the translated metaphors had nothing to do with the image shown online.

Translators were not informed (and probably did not ask) about the intended destination, the target reader, the “ideal” client of the website. Who was going to read and visit it? Institutional or retail investors? Should the language be easy to understand for everybody, or specifically directed to investment professionals. What is the brand “tone”, formal or informal?

A 20 minute call with the client’s local team was enough to understand their expectations and draft a very short “style guide” for an effective translation into Italian: words not to be translated, reference materials, a description of the market they wanted to reach in order to launch their products in Italy. A professional translator can start from such information to hone the language for the purpose.

When talking about style guides or manuals of style, you may think they are too academic, while a simple short guide for effective writing is a valuable reference for translators and does not need to be too complicated. You can combine this guide with glossaries and reference material to do a better job, a translation that does not sound like a translated text, but as an original document improving the quality of the message, increasing the audience engagement, and even cutting costs.

WHY… a style guide?

A set of rules, a guidebook on client’s preferences and expectations improves consistency of language and tone, helps conveying the right message, based on the company’s brand.

From the client’s view, it increases efficiency speeding up processes (including internal review and approval), and it reduces costs because activities are not duplicated.

Most importantly, focusing on personas, e.g. the client’s ideal reader and visitor, and destination market, you can improve the quality and efficacy of the message, using the right language, and optimising localisation.

From the translator’s perspective, she can speed up research (of terms, references, etc.), while the reviewer saves time because he does’t need to ask things twice, if there is a list of standards and references.

WHAT… is a style guide?

It does not need to be complicated, but a short set of standards, highlighting the client’s expectation and preferences.

A short description of the company, its products or services, and its goals are of great help:

  • purpose and destination of the translation (sales material, press release, website)
  • target market (Italy, industry, competitors)
  • target audience (institutional investors, retail investors, professionals, young people, financial education)
  • the object of communication: brand reputation, marketing, sale
  • preferred tone of voice: formal, informal

A style guide should also specify:

  • the language or style to be used, for example long or short sentences, the translator should be more faithful to the source or depart a bit more from the original to favour interpretation instead of a literal translation.
  • words to be avoided or “problem words” that the client does not use they are in a competitor’s commercial. If there is not a glossary, the translator may prepare one for reference.
  • words not to be translated (e.g. job positions, English terms commonly used in financial jargon)
  • use of abbreviations, capitalisation, measures, currencies [Financial Translation is a Balancing Act as I wrote here].
  • any formatting rules, typographical conventions or variety of language (in the case of English or Spanish, this is specifically important).

Reference documents may also be included in the guide, together with the visuals, images, pictures that will be published with the texts. This is especially useful in case of metaphors, which may be very different in a foreign language.

WHO… writes the style guide?

A client buying translation services may not be aware of the importance of such guidelines, but he should have an important role in drafting the guide, supplying coherent reference material as well as explanations and information. Of course, clients should have a clear view of the message they want to convey.

The professional translator and reviewer should ask the right questions to collect the necessary information for a better translation, fit for the purpose.

WHEN… do you write a style guide?

You can write a style guide at any time, but it is a good idea to start developing one at the start of the project or at the beginning of the relationship with a new client.

The professional translator will update it over time, when the client provides suggestions or revisions with the final version of the translated document, revised by its local sales team, or when issues arises that need standardised processes, or words to be avoided in the future.

Guida di stile per traduzioni finanziarie

In my experience as a translator and reviewer, I drafted many style guides and read instructions prepared by other companies. Based on my experience, the structure of the guide is important. It should not be too long or confused, otherwise nobody will use it. It should be short and sweet, to the point, containing only the necessary information with a structure. Recently, I received a guide containing a long list of terms not to be used, or examples of sentences corrected by a revisor, with no clear intention or direction, referring to a very differtent type of document. Useless.

I collected a series of interesting posts on this subject, with many examples and suggestions to be applied during the next call with a potential client.

I hope you will find them useful!

On Style Guides and Client Glossaries:

3 Myths About Who Should Edit Your Translation

Some translation projects involve a lone translator, while others allow the translator to choose an editor. My own experience comes from working for direct clients, where I almost always choose an editor to work closely on my translation with me, or we switch roles and I’m the one who edits my colleague’s translation. Even if you don’t work for direct clients, it’s useful to be prepared to find the right collaborator when the time comes.

Some agencies will pay you a price that includes both translation and editing so you can hire your own editor. Although not all that common, this is not unheard of, so it’s good to be prepared.

Reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of your colleagues could also come in handy when choosing a practice partner. If you’re a beginner looking to hone your skills, it can be helpful to find a colleague to give you feedback (for more on this, see my past post Hone Your Craft Before You Sell—How I Would Have Practiced as a Newbie in Hindsight).

To really master the art of finding the right editor for each project, you’ll need to keep an open mind and break free from some common misconceptions you may have inherited from the way translators usually work with translation agencies.

Myth 1: Both the translator and the editor must be native speakers of the target language

Many in the translation industry believe that they should only translate into their native language. Others assert that they are competent to translate in both directions. Whatever one’s position on this debate, it seems to be predicated on the paradigm of working alone.

However, it’s only natural that a translator will excel when paired with an editor with complementary strengths and weaknesses. Sure, there are some projects where it makes sense to have two native speakers of the target language. But if you carefully consider each project, I believe you’ll find there are in fact some instances when you’d be better off pairing a native speaker of the source language and a native speaker of the target language.

I’m not saying that any old native speaker of the source language will do. I’m referring to someone who masters their source language (the project’s target language) at a high level. It’s commonly assumed that native speakers of the source language will stick close to the source and produce a translation that is not well adapted to the target language. However, I’ve found that the opposite can be true.

In fact, I’ve found that translations that stick close to the source are more likely to come from translators who are native speakers of the target language who are unable to fully comprehend the source. This sometimes leads them to translate word for word out of fear of getting the meaning wrong. On the other hand, native speakers of the source language tend to be well aware of the deeper meaning behind the source text and of subtleties that are difficult to translate. This allows them to explain the meaning and make pertinent suggestions to their colleague who is a native speaker of the target language.

I’ve also noticed that pairing a translator living in the target-language country with a translator in the source-language country can be of merit. In a certain sense, this bears similarities to the “native of source” and “native of target” pairing, as one colleague is more in tune with the source language and the other is more in tune with the target language. For practical reasons, it can also be helpful to have someone on the ground in the source-language country, where more of the demand tends to be. This person can help handle contact with the client in the source language.

Another factor that speaks in favor of working with a native speaker of the source language is when some specific combination of subject-matter expertise, text-type familiarity, and client-specific terminology is required. Sometimes you simply cannot find two native speakers of the target language with the right combination of skills, but adding a native speaker of the source language can be the missing puzzle piece.

Myth 2: The translator and editor should have similar expertise

Sometimes, translation projects are categorized in very broad terms, such as technical, medical, legal, financial, or marketing. These are five of the most common specializations, when looking at how translation agencies assign projects and how translators tend to position themselves. According to this logic, you just need to find two legal translators to work on a legal project or two marketing translators to work on a project loosely classified as marketing.

However, the reality is that many projects are far more complex if you dig deeper. A website about a technical product may require both someone with strong expertise related to that particular type of product and someone with a knack for web copy. Although clients may be able to find both of these skills in one person, that will not always be the case.

In fact, the search for the right subject-matter expertise is exactly the reason I sometimes hire a native speaker of the source language to edit my translations, and also why I recently tried being the native speaker of the source language for the first time.

One example of the former was a project involving HR materials where I teamed up with a native speaker of the source language who had worked in HR prior to becoming a translator. I didn’t know any native speakers of the target language who had worked in HR, and the greatest challenge of this project was making perfect sense of the rules specific to the source-language country.

In the project where I tried getting my feet wet as a native speaker of the source language, a regular client of mine needed a translation in the opposite direction and I was unable to find a native speaker with expertise in the subject matter. I was able to offer my knowledge of the client’s terminology and preferences along with the required subject-matter expertise and called upon a native speaker of the target language to help ensure everything was well formulated and readable.

Myth 3: The editor must have a background in translation

It’s also relatively standard that a translator is asked to edit another translator’s work. However, on some projects, I’ve found it effective to work with a copyeditor who is not a translator. They are usually especially good at suggesting improvements for flow and style and picking up on any traces of source-language interference in the target language wording.

I’ve worked quite a lot with an editor trained as a copyeditor and native in the target language but who still has a working knowledge of the source language. This person has more of a copyeditor’s approach than a translator’s but would still notice if I accidentally omitted something from the source language.

In other cases, it’s perfectly fine to work with a monolingual copyeditor. In these cases, I serve as the link between the source and target to make sure the editor doesn’t change the meaning. I’ve even experimented successfully with pairing a translator who’s a native speaker of the source language with a monolingual copyeditor who’s a native speaker of the target language to take it to the extreme.

In addition, there are professionals other than copyeditors whom you might want to review your translation. For example, some cases call for a true subject-matter expert, such as a practicing physician or attorney.

I hope these reflections have helped clear up some misconceptions and open your mind to new possibilities. Above all, think carefully about each project and keep in mind that the right combination benefits everyone. You’ll learn more from working with someone who has skills that complement your own than with someone who has similar strengths and weaknesses, and the final translation will be more effective and accurate.

What unorthodox combinations have you found to be successful? Let us know in the comments.

Image source: Pixabay

Focus on: New Translators (Part 1)

Reblogged from Silver Tongue Translations blog, with permission

You know, the title of this blog post is a bit misleading (arrrgh! I’m breaking my own rules!) I’ve aimed it at “new translators”, but really, these tips serve any translators, be they fresh as daisies or been-around-the-blockers, the only requirement is that they want to improve. (This is all of us, right?)

I got asked to mentor two new translators over the summer, and, once I’d finished my bulk order of anti-aging cream, I decided to view it as a positive thing. I also started to think about how I could be of best service. What would my “tips” be? What did I wish I knew at the start of my career? The video at the end of this post, lovely colleagues, is what I came up with.

In a nutshell (as I’m aware that my videos are more coconut shell than pistachio in size), these are my top ten tips (if you can’t be bothered scrolling to the video):

  1. Translate every day

It doesn’t matter if it’s the back of the shampoo bottle you bought on your last trip to your source language country, or whether it’s an extract from an article you loved (I know what I’d go for), translating every day sharpens your translation skills, makes you a better writer and keeps up your source language proficiency (this last one is especially important if you don’t reside in your source language country).

Translating every day has the added benefit of increasing your productivity because, usually, the more you practise, the quicker you get. It doesn’t take a mathematician to work out that if you’re working quickly and accurately you’re able to complete more work in a shorter period of time (which leaves you more time for checking, of course!). Whether you pass these savings on to your client is up to you though….

  1. Work out how much you must earn

….then how much you want to earn. Only you know your essential outgoings every month (I’m thinking rent/mortgage, utilities, phone, food….) so only you know how much you’ll need to cover those expenses. Don’t forget to pay yourself a salary! Then have a look at how many days a week/month/year you’re going to be working. Be realistic.

It is simply not feasible to work 15 hours a day, 7 days a week, so don’t pretend that it is.

Use these calculations as a basis for working out how much you need to charge. Don’t forget to take into account the total time for a translation – from initial contact, through to translation and then on to editing and checking. It all counts.

  1. Find your “I’m special because…”

Do you have a hobby that you’ve enjoyed for years? How about a part time job or family business you’ve been a part of?

Don’t discount all past experiences which aren’t obviously related to translation as irrelevant.

You have skills, knowledge, experiences and expertise (we all do, we’re not one-dimensional creatures). It might not be sustainable to only work in an area that relates to your interests and pastimes, but if it can form a part of your business it’ll sure make a 25,000 word document more pleasant to pull an (occasional) all-nighter for.

  1. Get yourself a buddy

Friends are important. We know this. In your professional life, it’s no different. I recommend two courses of action for buddying up with a translator:

  1. Find a colleague (perhaps of similar experience to you) who is willing to check your work.

Another set of eyes is always helpful, and you will feel much happier submitting to your client if you know that it hasn’t just been your coffee-fuelled brain working on the document.

  1. Find a mentor.

By mentor, I mean a more experienced colleague who is willing to share some of their knowledge and experience with you. They don’t have to have the same specialisms as you (although that is enormously helpful), their experience in translation and running a business will more than suffice.

  1. Keep moving

It’s easy to stay at our desk. Eat lunch over the keyboard (gross, but we’ve probably all done it), slurp coffee (and probably spill it) over the aforementioned keyboard and generally only get up from our desks when our bladders are threatening to stage a walkout. Take breaks, get outside for fresh air (and perspective, inspiration and Vitamin D). It’s easy to play the role of martyr and say things like “I’ve been translating for 9 hours straight.” That’s not something to boast about. It’s just unhealthy.

Keeping moving means something else too. Keep your business moving. Every day, make some form of forward motion. Some progress. It could be setting your goals for the year. Doing a bit of marketing. Sending out some pitch emails. It might seem that it’s not getting you anywhere, but it is.

Momentum will make a difference.

  1. Give and receive help

I talk about being helpful a lot. I’m a big believer in it. The translation community is open and responsive. Just last week I was having Trados issues and several colleagues (Sheila, Caroline and David to name but a few) jumped in to help me out. David even ended up testing out my document on his version, re-saving the target file for me to use and then later that evening, converting it back for me, just in case I’d had more technical issues. When I thanked him, he said,

“No problem. You shared something months ago and I am a great believer in “pass it forward”.”

This isn’t encouraging you to help people only to get something in return, it’s to say that we’re an appreciative, helpful bunch. And we don’t forget.

  1. Systems are your friend

It might seem like a lot of hassle to have spreadsheets for everything right from the start. It can feel like Excel is mocking you, with your client list filling up only two lines of the cells on the worksheet of your grandly titled “Clients_Master Database”. Equally, calendar reminders for when to invoice may also seem a little…unnecessary for new translators at the beginning. I faithfully set them up and by the time they pinged to remind me to remind the client to pay I had already done it (it’s not hard to remember when you only have one client…)

But you will get more clients.

And when you do, you will be happy to have a list of invoice references, so you don’t have to faff around finding the last one you sent. There are even systems that do this all for you, and link up to your emails and take away the coffee cups from your desk before they walk away on their own (I made that last bit up.)

  1. Sort the essentials

I hate to break it you, but you have to pay tax. You’ll probably also want to retire at some stage with some form of savings and/or a pension. These are two items on the “essentials” list for everybody, not just translators. The difference when you’re self-employed (or even working in a self-employed capacity on a part-time basis) is that you don’t have someone else, i.e. an employer, to handle it for you. Sort this stuff early.

As in the tip above about systems, I know it feels silly to be putting money away for tax when, at the beginning, you don’t feel you’re earning much, but getting into good habits at the start of your career is so much easier than trying to adopt good habits when you’re a more established translator.

  1. Don’t stop learning

Read widely in your source and target languages. Subscribe to magazines in your niche. Talk to fellow translators. Take advantage of CPD offered by colleagues and institutions. Attend events. You never know when a piece of knowledge or a chance encounter will give rise to an opportunity. Apart from the potential business benefits, don’t forget what we all knew as children….

Learning is fun.

  1. Integrity is everything

It’s tempting at the beginning to try and be all things to all people. Accepting that impossible deadline might curry favour with a PM, but it probably won’t be conducive to producing high quality work. Changing your CV to say you’re an expert on quantum physics is only a good idea if you’d somehow forgotten studying for that PhD back in high school.

Some jobs are worth going the extra mile for, some jobs are worth pushing yourself beyond what you’d previously thought you could achieve. But don’t push yourself too far away from what is possible and practical.

Your reputation is worth much more than a single “impossible” job.

Do you have any tips for new translators? Would you be interested in mentoring a colleague? Let me know in the comments!

Image source: Pixabay

The Greatest Challenge Facing Translators

Reblogged from Academic Language Experts blog, with permission from the author

A friend, wishing to polish his translation skills, recently asked me the following question: “if you had to give one tip to a new translator, what would it be?” Without hesitation I answered “avoid literalisms.” As editor of Academic Language Experts this is the most frequent issue I encounter when reviewing translations: texts which, while comprehensible, are markedly literal.

Let me explain. When I say “literalisms” I do not mean a text that is translated word-for-word. I am actually referring to a more subtle problem: a translation which is technically “correct”—definitely not “Google translate”—but still closely emulates the form, order, and linguistic idiosyncrasies of its source.

There are of course cases when a literal translation may be preferable (legal and medical texts for example) and this is certainly an issue translators and clients should discuss explicitly before a project begins. But generally speaking, clients want their texts translated so their message or research can effectively reach audiences who are only familiar with the target language.  A text fails at this task when it reveals its foreign origins, gives the impression of an imperfect rendering, and challenges readers to clamber over awkward, disjointed formulations.

There is a reason this problem is so widespread. Avoiding literalisms is THE most difficult part of being a translator. It requires employing many different skills simultaneously: reading comprehension, writing proficiency, language knowledge and more. It requires a translator to extract the meaning from the source language, while at the same time escaping its stylistic-linguistic influence. It is the writer’s equivalent of trying to whistle a song while another one plays in the background. The ability to juggle these skills is truly a rare talent.

The first step to cultivating this talent is to develop an explicit awareness of one’s natural tendency to translate literally. Once a translator has identified these pitfalls, they can consciously adopt strategies to overcome them. With practice this can become second-nature, and markedly improve the quality and readability of one’s translations.

This subject requires a more thorough treatment, but for now I will provide a few examples of strategies I personally have adopted to improve my translations. While my examples will be from my area of expertise—Hebrew to English translation—the principles behind them are equally applicable to all language pairs.

1) Liberally switch up verbs, nouns, adjectives, and even different verb forms (passive and active and different tenses).

Whether a noun, verb, or adjective is most appropriate is often language-specific. For example the phrase: “She had fear of the upcoming battle” is technically correct but is probably not how a native speaker would write it. Consider, turning the noun into an adjective  such as: “she was afraid of the upcoming battle.”

To give some examples from Hebrew to English translation: consider translating zeh lo me’anyen oti not as “this does not interest me” (verb) but as “I do not find it interesting” (adjective). Similarly, consider translating higia lidei maskananot as “he reached a conclusion” but as “he concluded.”

The same goes for positive and negative formulations. If the source reads “not complicated” consider: “simple

Use this strategy to pick words and phrases which sound their best in the target language, while still preserving the meaning of the source text.

2) The unit of translation need not be the sentence.

Sometimes faithfully maintaining the sentence boundaries as dictated by the source will result in unmanageably long and convoluted formulations (a common issue when translating from terse Hebrew to wordy English). Translators should consider splitting up sentences, rearranging their order, or even sprinkling in some semi-colons, em-dashes, and parentheses. Your goal is to convey the text’s meaning; convoluted run-on sentences fail to do this.

3) Play around with syntax.

The order of words in a source text is not always a function of meaning. Often it reflects the idiosyncratic style of a certain language. Translators should liberally move clauses around, moving a verb phrase from the beginning of a sentence to its end or moving the subject of the sentence from the end to the beginning. An almost ubiquitous example in Hebrew to English translation is rendering the Hebrew particle shel as in hahatul shel yehudah. Literally this reads “the cat of Judah” but English, unlike Hebrew, allows a much more elegant formulation: “Judah’s cat.” It is far more important for words to be in an order that sounds natural and clear to the intended reader than to accurately emulate the syntax of the source.

4) Avoid copying idiomatic language.

While I think it goes without saying not to render literally incomprehensible idioms, even less egregious examples can also make a text sound awkward.  Here are two examples from Hebrew:

In Hebrew, the expression be’eynay is a perfectly acceptable way of saying “in my opinion.” But rendering this literally, “in my eyes,” sounds awkward and archaic.

Ner leragli. While “A candle to my feet” clearly sounds like a translation, even a more oblique translation such as “lighting my path” still may be better rendered as “my inspiration.”

5) Think beyond dictionary definitions and try to capture a word’s connotation and not just its meaning.

Dictionaries are very good at helping you understand a language. However, they are not always the perfect tools for translation. For example, the Hebrew pulmus and hitpalmes are translated as “polemic” and “polemicize” respectively. While these translations are accurate, in English they carry a scholastic, medieval connotation which may be inappropriate depending on the context. Think around the concept of pulmus and consider words such as “controversy,” “attack,” or “dispute.” Translators may even consider keeping their own private dictionaries of such oblique definitions to assist them in future translations.

6) Read it over and over again.

This is important for all writing but I believe it is particularly important for translation. It is often hard to appreciate how “foreign” one’s translation sounds while immersed in translating it. Therefore it is important to read a text more than once, even the next day if possible, in order to properly evaluate its problems, as an impartial observer removed from the act of translation.

Image source: Pixabay

Advice for Beginners: Specialization

By Judy Jenner
Post reblogged from Translation Times blog with permission by the author, incl. the image

Many beginning interpreters oftentimes ask us about specialization and whether it’s essential that they specialize. We get many of these questions from Judy’s students at the Spanish/English translation certificate program at University of San Diego-Extension and from Dagy’s mentees. We thought it might be helpful to give a short summary on translation specialization.

One project does not equal specialization. This is a classic mistake that we also made early in our careers. Just because you have done a project (or two or three) in a specific area doesn’t mean that’s a specialization. You should really have in-depth knowledge.

Choose wisely. A specialization is an area that you know very, very well and that you can confidently say you are an expert in. Remember that if you choose a specific area, say chemistry or finance, it’s best to have significant experience, including perhaps a graduate degree and work experience outside the T&I field, in that specific area. You will be competing with colleagues who have both experience and credentials, so it’s important that you are prepared. For instance, we have a dear friend and colleague who has a doctorate in chemistry. Naturally, Karen Tkaczyk’s area of specialization is chemistry.

Non-specializations. It’s impossible to be an expert in everything. It looks quite unprofessional to say that you specialize in everything, so we suggest staying away from that approach. Also be sure to put some thought into areas that you don’t want to work in at all because you are not qualified, interested, or both. For instance, we once got a call from a client who really wanted to hire us to translate a physics text. We don’t know anything about physics, even though we took eight years of it, and even though we were flattered, we politely declined and recommended a colleague. That project would have been a disaster. We also wisely stay away from in-depth medical translations.

It’s OK not to have one. It’s not a bad thing to not have a specialization or significant experience in any area at the beginning of your career. Everyone starts out without experience (we did, too), and we wouldn’t recommend lying about any experience you have. However, think about experience outside the T&I field: perhaps you were a Little League coach and thus know a lot about baseball or volunteered at your local Habitat for Humanity and thus know a bit about non-profits. The experience doesn’t have to be in both languages, but any background and educational credentials will come in handy. For instance, Judy’s graduate degree is in business management, so business translations were a natural fit for her. We had also done previous copywriting work (before we started our business, that is), so we felt that the advertising field might be a good specialization (and we were right).

Add one! It might also very well happen that you will add specializations throughout your career, which is a good thing. We recommend choosing closely related fields so you don’t have to invest too much time and resources.

Getting faster. As a general rule, the more specialized you are, the faster you will be able to translate because you will be very familiar with the terminology. For instance, we have colleagues who only translate clinical trials, real estate purchase contracts or patents. They have usually amassed large glossaries and translation memories and spent little time researching and lots of time translation, thus positively affecting their bottom line.

We think this is a good start, but would love to hear from both colleagues and newcomers. Join the conversation by leaving a comment!