Untranslatable Text: Myth, Reality, or Something Else? A Translator’s Reflections on Translation and “Untranslatability”

This post originally appeared on The ATA Chronicle and it is republished with permission.

There inevitably comes a time in a translator’s life when he or she starts to challenge translation/translatability as a concept. More often than not, this occurs as a result of finding oneself confronted with a term that is deemed untranslatable and questioning not only the meaning of the word itself, but also the reality of the concept. In doing so, the translator joins the ranks of the thousands who have reflected and debated on the subject throughout the history of translation. Indeed, the notion of untranslatability has been argued by the best minds for centuries, including translation theorists, philosophers, linguists, writers, and poets. Therefore, no article can pretend to even introduce the subject, let alone offer any new and startling revelation. But humor me, as I reflect on the topic and attempt to demonstrate that when it comes to untranslatability, everything may be a question of definition, that using the term lightly may backfire, and that the answer to the translatability/untranslatability conundrum is as elusive as ever.

Untranslatability: An Arguable Reality

According to Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, “some degree of partial untranslatability marks the relationship of every language to every other.”1 Total untranslatability, however, is believed to be rare. In fact, it is generally agreed that the areas that most nearly approach it are poetry, puns, and other wordplays. This is because of their connection to sound, images, rhythm, and sense, which are often (if not always) difficult/impossible to render into another language without losing some essential components of the original text. Yet, the term untranslatable seems to find its way into everyday speech effortlessly. But are we always using the term correctly?

To find out, let’s start with a simple definition. Simple, you say? Not so much, as no two dictionaries agree fully on how to define the term untranslatable. Definitions range from the one-dimensional “Impossible to translate” (MacMillan) to the basic “Not able to be expressed or written down in another language or dialect” (Collins) to the less theoretical “Of a word or, phrase, or text not able to have its sense satisfactorily expressed in another language” [emphasis mine] (Oxford). While all true, no definition seems to convey fully the reality of the concept of the term as we translators know it. We must turn to more comprehensive works to find a balanced, complete definition with which we can relate. From these sources we learn that:

  • Untranslatability is a property of a text, or of any utterance, in one language, for which no equivalent text or utterance can be found in another language when translated.
  • Terms are neither exclusively translatable nor exclusively untranslatable; rather, the degree of difficulty of translation depends on their nature, as well as on the translator’s knowledge of the languages in question.
  • Quite often, a text or utterance that is considered to be “untranslatable” is actually a lacuna, or lexical gap. That is, there is no one-to-one equivalence between the word, expression, or turn of phrase in the source language and another word, expression, or turn of phrase in the target language. A translator can, however, resort to a number of translation procedures to compensate for this. Therefore, untranslatability or difficulty of translation does not always carry deep linguistic relativity implications; denotation can virtually always be translated, given enough circumlocution, although connotation may be ineffable or inefficient to convey. […]2

In other words, the term untranslatable is most often used to refer to lexical gaps (i.e., terms or expressions that do not exist in another language) or cultural gaps (i.e., concepts that do not exist in another culture). However, it is not necessarily because a language doesn’t have a direct lexical or cultural equivalent for a term/expression/ concept that there is absolutely no way to express it in another language.

Translators have many methods at their disposal to do so (think: adaptation, borrowing, calque, loanwords, compensation, paraphrase, translator’s notes, etc.). Does this mean that all words, expressions, verbal forms, honorifics, etc., can be translated precisely? No. But it is generally agreed that most, if not all, texts can be exported into another language, even though all elements of those texts (e.g., cultural connotations, rhymes, rhythms, puns, etc.) may not always be exported alongside successfully. So, in essence, no text would be truly untranslatable, but the translation of culturally irreconcilable texts would inevitably result in some degree of loss. It is that loss that validates the notion of untranslatability, even though the text itself can be translated.

In truth, our world is home to so much cultural diversity, so many languages, and so many disparities among them that there are bound to be terms/expressions/concepts that fall so deeply into the lexical and cultural voids that they are labeled untranslatable. Indeed, who could argue that some notions are so incredibly specific to a culture that no other culture has a direct equivalent for them?

Take the word mamihlapinatapai, for example, which is Yahgan for “a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other will offer something that they both desire but are unwilling to suggest or offer themselves.” 3 Not surprisingly, it appears in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most succinct word,” but it is also considered one of the most difficult words to translate.4 But is it really untranslatable? Would you say that “an expressive, meaningful look between two people wishing to initiate something but reluctant to do so” is a translation (versus a definition or an interpretation)? The answers to those questions depend on your definition of translation.

Translation/Translatability: A Less-Than-Absolute Truth

Translation as a concept is subject to many interpretations, and countless definitions have been put forth by translation theorists over time. The American translation theorist Lawrence Venuti, for example, defines translation as “a process by which the chain of signifiers that constitutes the source-language text is replaced by a chain of signifiers in the target language, which the translator provides on the strength of an interpretation.”5 Venuti’s argument supports the deconstructionist ideas that everything is about context, that any text may have more than one interpretation, and that all forms of reading a text (including translating it) are forms of interpretation.

Like many, when it comes to certain types of translation, I find it difficult not to agree with the deconstructionists. In fact, I often find that in order to reach the intended goal (e.g., a text that reads smoothly, elicits an emotional response, convinces, etc.), I have to take “interpretive liberties” that prioritize sense over words. More times than not, I feel that the boundaries between translating and rewriting/transcreating are rather blurry. But without getting into the debate of whether translation is a creation or “regurgitation” process, or arguing over the merit of fidelity over transparency (or vice versa), we can all agree safely on the fact that translation is an elaborate deconstruction-reconstruction process that involves a great deal of creativity and “stretching” of the target language.

While translation always captures the meaning of a text, the way and form in which the message is communicated may depend as much on personal interpretation as on lexical interpretation and lexical choices. The more idiomatic or culturally laden the text, the more room for interpretation of both sorts, and the more creative the result.

In truth, when words/concepts such as “good and evil” (in the way we relate to them today) find their way into time-honored religious texts and become embedded so deeply into our collective cultural heritage, even when they are said to have had no equivalent in the language(s) in which they were originally written, isn’t it possible that everything is a question of interpretation? Isn’t this also implying that translation is always the subjective expression of an idea, which is itself rooted in a specific cultural, historical, and linguistic context? Going further, isn’t it possible that translatability is not so much an absolute truth as a relative notion—at least as relative as untranslatability? The only certainty is that one cannot question untranslatability without questioning translatability, and that both concepts are two sides of the same coin with one thing in common: loss, or at least some degree of it.

Because language is a cultural phenomenon, loss is ever present in translation. Some connotations are bound to elude target-language readers who are unfamiliar with the cultural context behind them, or don’t associate them with the same emotion as source-language readers—even when a text is deemed translatable. Because translators typically have one foot in each culture and are accustomed to bridging the gap between the source and target cultures, they will most likely always understand the text and its connotation, but may not always be able to export the latter across cultures. However, as long as the message (i.e., the meaning of the text) makes it through gracefully, a text will generally be deemed adequately translated. The question is what happens when the message cannot make it through? Can we then talk of untranslatability? Or rather, should we?

The Everyday Untranslatable Text

Translators often come across texts whose idiomatic nature makes it necessary to rethink their definition of untranslatability and to stretch the target language to its very limit. (All of us know how much flexibility, creativity, and innovative thinking are required in the process!) In some instances, a translator will come up with a culturally appropriate equivalent (albeit distant from the original idea). Where choices are limited by factors that cannot be controlled, the translator may substitute the text with something else altogether. In rare instances where a concept is completely unknown to a culture, the translator’s work will go even further to make up for the conceptual void. In all cases, the text will be deemed adequately (albeit creatively) translated and, by extension, translatable.

However, there are instances when translators simply cannot make the decision to stretch the language, substitute text, or explain an alien concept, because that decision is simply not theirs to make. These are instances in which translators may find themselves using the word untranslatable to refer to something else altogether.

When Untranslatable = Does Not Translate Effectively

One such occurrence of a text that is often labeled untranslatable is “must-translate” text that may not translate effectively. We’ve all been there. In order to avoid a simple (to us) explanation that will confuse our monolingual client, we might refer to that text as untranslatable. But should we? Let’s use a simple case of marketing translation gone wrong to illustrate that particular dilemma.

We’ve all heard of the Braniff Airlines’ “Fly in Leather” campaign that sought to highlight the airline’s luxury leather seats, but was a fiasco in some parts of Latin America, where the slogan “Vuela en cuero” was interpreted as “fly naked/in the nude/topless.” 6 Braniff’s misstep has become a classic example of unfortunate translation choices, but it might as well have been a case of unheeded warning. Consider the following scenario (with which more than a few marketing translators may be familiar).

Translator: The copy is untranslatable to a degree. If translated literally, it will miss the mark with the target audience because of XYZ.

Client: We’d like to keep it as is. It worked well here.

Translator: To readers from another culture, the text has a different connotation. I’ve taken the liberty of coming up with a few alternatives and their back translations to give you an idea of what would make sense to your target audience.

Client: We don’t like how any of those sound.

Translator: They sound better in the language. The back-translations are only aimed at giving you an idea of what the text means.

Client: We would rather use our original copy.

Translator: You may want to consider retaining an in-country consultant who could advise you further as to how to market your brand/ product effectively.

Client: We’ve taken your advice under consideration, but we really feel our original copy is the best way to go. We’ve asked our bilingual employees and they think it sounds good, so please translate the copy as is.

Obviously, if a client trusts the translator’s expertise and already appreciates the fact that cultural differences make it necessary to adapt copy rather than translate it verbatim, the above scenario is unlikely. But clients new to intercultural communication, ignorant of the intricate differences between languages/cultures, or overly confident in the global effectiveness of their copy/message may not understand why writing copy for a specific market is preferable to translating copy written for another. To these clients, words and expressions such as “untranslatable,” “not translatable, “not translating well/effectively,” and the like often equate to “failure to understand [the copy because of its idiomatic nature]” and “failure to translate,” so using them to avoid a likely ineffectual explanation rarely leads to the desired outcome. On the contrary, it often leads to a situation where translators find themselves trying to prove that they understood the copy and can translate it “as is.” However, it’s not in the client’s best interest to do so (so back to square one).

A better approach might be to avoid all explanations having to do with translation (and especially the word untranslatable). State simply that target readers will not relate to the message because of a cultural gap and request a more culturally neutral text. If trained as a marketing writer, for example, one may go as far as to ask the client what other directions they may consider taking and offer to come up with alternative copy based on those. Recommending that the client seek the advice of a target language writer is another option. Regardless of the road we choose to take, staying away from the word untranslatable and adjectives like it will save a lot of time and effort.

When Untranslatable = Incomprehensible

Another case of text that a translator might refer to as untranslatable is one that is so unintelligible or inarticulate that the translator cannot commit to a translation. At least not without first attaining a reasonable degree of certainty about its meaning as it was intended originally. Bible translators know this dilemma well, as religious texts are fertile grounds for impenetrable copy (which more and more translators are now choosing not to translate). For example, the new Swedish Bible reportedly features some 67 such instances! In the January 2007 issue of The Bible Translator, published by The United Bible Societies, Christer Åsberg, a professor of Swedish language and literature, explains:

Those who read Ps 141.6b in a sample of modern Bible translations may wonder why the verse is translated in so many different ways.

  • RSV [Revised Standard Version]: Then they shall learn that the word of the LORD is true.
  • CEV [Contemporary English Version]: Everyone will admit that I was right.
  • NAB [New American Bible]: and they heard how pleasant were my words.
  • NJPSV [New Jewish Publication Society Version]: but let my words be heard, for they are sweet.
  • EHS [Evangelical Homiletics Society]: sie sollen hören, daß mein Wort für sie freundlich ist (they will hear that my word is favorable for them)
  • TOB [Ecumenical Translation]: eux qui s’étaint régalés de m’entendre dire: (those who were invited to hear me say:)
  • DB [Die Boodskap]: og man skal erfare, at mine ord var gode (and people will find, that my words were good ones)

In the 2000 Swedish translation (SB/Svenskbibel), the verse is not translated at all; it is indicated with three hyphens inside square brackets, [—].7

But translators don’t have to specialize in ancient texts or languages to face that particular dilemma, and the challenges that the situation creates are not any less exacting. Indeed, when translating current texts, leaving the copy blank is not an option, and dealing with actual writers/clients may at times be even more challenging than translating texts from the ancient ones who are no longer around to explain them.

When confronted with texts so incoherent that they cannot be translated in a way that makes sense, a translator’s first reaction might be to inform the client that the copy in question is untranslatable. Honestly, this sounds better than a candid truth that may alienate the client. However, by doing so we may be doing ourselves (and our client) a disservice. Not only might the client equate “untranslatable” with “failure to understand/translate” (something that sounds perfectly comprehensible to them), but they might also get defensive, thereby lessening the chance of getting the text edited for both translation and publication purposes.

A better approach might be to inform the client that you are having trouble understanding the copy and asking them to explain it. Most clients will realize while verbalizing their thoughts that the copy is in need of editing/rewriting and thank you for your careful reading of their text. (If not, you may at least use your newly-found understanding of the copy to make sure that the translation is intelligible.)

If previous or subsequent content allows you to ascertain without a doubt what the text should say, then you may also take it upon yourself to rewrite the copy. Whether you should and the consequences of such an action are another matter entirely. (See “The Translator as an Editor” in the March 2014 edition of The ATA Chronicle).8 As to how to deal with clients who think their carelessly written text makes enough sense to be translated and insist that you translate it “as is,” the best approach may be simply to stay away. After all, a translator’s ethics and reputation are worth more than the number of clients on a list.

Regardless of the translation challenges we face and how we choose to respond to them, reserving the term untranslatable to actual instances of untranslatability will go a long way. In everyday translation scenarios, most of the challenges that present themselves to us (besides lexical gaps, which can generally be managed without much fuss or client input) are typically either oversights in the source text or cultural discrepancies. Presenting them as such may serve us and our clients well.

Which leaves us with one big question. If texts deemed untranslatable can be translated and texts that cannot be translated are not untranslatable, what are we to make of untranslatability as a concept?

Myth or Something Else?

Although much has been said and written about the “myth of untranslatability,” the concept keeps defying black-and-white categorization. Both rare and commonplace, real and not, and certainly as difficult to prove as to disprove, untranslatability may masquerade as a paradox. However, it is, more than anything else, a relative notion linked to the very definition of translation/translatability, and the extent to which text and meaning can be exported across languages satisfactorily—if ever. There is no question that terms, expressions, and concepts that have no direct equivalents or do not exist in another language pose great difficulties to the translator, regardless of how many compensation methods may be used to render the translation.

There is also no question that a certain amount of loss (both lexical and non-lexical) is inevitable as a result of circumventing the challenges that lexical and cultural gaps present, and that the more culturallybound the text, the greater that loss. The question is to know whether texts that have no equivalents should be labeled as untranslatable, and whether “non-equivalent translations” are less or more accurate translations than equivalent ones. When non-equivalent translations yield better results than equivalent ones, couldn’t it simply suggest that untranslatability is inherent to language itself and that the myth is actually translatability?

Finding the answer to that question seems as elusive as ever. After all, there is a reason translation theorists, philosophers, and linguists have been debating the subject for centuries. So let’s leave it as that. As Friedrich Nietzsche said: “Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon the absolute truth.”9 And neither does there seem to be any absolute truth in the notion of untranslatability (or translatability, for that matter).

Notes

  1. A. MacIntyre. Relativism, Power, and Philosophy (American Philosophical Association, 1985), 383.
  2. Definition of Untranslatability, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Untranslatability.
  3. Urban Dictionary, http://bit.ly/1NMVBsj.
  4. Matthews, Peter, and Norris McWhirter. The Guinness Book of World Records (Guinness Media, 1994), 392.
  5. Lawrence, Venuti. “The Translator’s Invisibility,” Criticism (Wayne State University Press, 1986), 17.
  6. Wooten, Adam. “International Business: In Global Airline Marketing, Idioms Must Be Handled Carefully,” Deseret News (January 1, 2011), http://bit.ly/ airline-idioms.
  7. Christer Åsberg. “The Translator and the Untranslatable: A Case of Horror Vacui,” The Bible Translator (January 2007), http://bit.ly/Asberg.
  8. Maginot, Christelle. “The Translator as an Editor,” The ATA Chronicle (March 2014), 16, http://bit.ly/ATA-Maginot.
  9. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks (Gateway Editions, 1996), 83, http://bit.ly/Nietzsche-Greeks.

Author bio

Christelle Maginot has over 25 years of experience as a professional translator. For the past 18 years, she has been working as an in-house translator for a major consumer goods corporation, where she handles and supervises the translation of corporate, technical, sales, and marketing material into multiple languages. She has a master’s degree in International Business/Marketing and English, French, and Spanish translation from the University of Aix-en-Provence, France. Contact: Christelle.maginot@yahoo.com.

So, You Want To Be A Translator?

This post originally appeared on The Detail Woman blog and it is republished with permission.

There are two main things I want to do on this page: first, I want to say a few things to people considering entering the translation profession. Mostly I want to clear up some misconceptions, but there are also some things I just plain think everyone who’s contemplating or practicing translation needs to hear. Second, for people interested in what kind of background you need or steps you can take to become a kickass translator, I want to talk a little bit about the skills needed and how to go about getting them.

I write this page not with the assumption that I am The Kickass Translator of All Time, but with the knowledge that I am still growing and that every single thing I say still applies to me and always will. In fact, I hope I’ll always be growing as a translator. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. But in my career I’ve had the opportunity to be on both sides of the process: on one side the translator being evaluated and working under supervision, and on the other side the person evaluating translators–both making recommendations on hires and quality checking other people’s work. It’s a somewhat unique set of experiences and it’s let me see a lot of things about the translating processes of myself and others, and about new translators I see entering the field.

Part 1: Opening Comments – On Translation

Over the last decade I’ve been asked a lot of questions about translating and being a translator. Some have come from aspiring translators, some from current translators, some from anime fans, and some from people who were just interested. I’ve seen remarks about translation in anime reviews, fan forums, and the like. I’ve also corresponded with people seeking translation jobs.

All these experiences have taught about some of the ideas people come into the translation field with–and some of the ideas they don’t. And I’m seeing some gaps between the expectation and the reality of translation that I’d like to address.

1. Your Work Is Not Your Work.

To translate means to deal in the borrowed or the stolen, never the owned. Everything that you are handling belongs to someone else. That show you are translating, that novel you are translating, it’s someone else’s work. This may seem almost insultingly obvious. But there are a lot of implications that you need to think about. The act of translation necessitates an extreme degree of respect. Surrender any impulses of “he should have.” Fight off any thoughts of “making it better” than the original. The greatest artist is great because of what you see testified in his work, but the greatest translator is great because of his invisibility. You must not insert your own ego. You must not change lightly. You don’t have the right to. It’s the same principle as the man assigned to guard another man’s wife: your job and your moral duty are to return her in the same condition you found her to the furthest extent possible. Because whether you love her, you hate her, or you find yourself indifferent to her–it’s your job, and she’s not your wife. You need to be thinking that seriously. If you’re not prepared to live with the constant moral responsibility that translating entails, you shouldn’t be a translator.

2. Some Types Of People Make Good Translators, Some Don’t.

Because translation carries such a high degree of ethical responsibility and there are so many cracks through which meaning can slip, a translator absolutely must be meticulous. The kind of person that makes a good translator is the same kind of person that makes a good librarian: someone who’s a little (or a lot) obsessive-compulsive. Now, of course you don’t need an OCD personality to be a translator. But if it’s not your personality, it’s got to be your attitude. Translating requires intense concentration for long periods of time and attention to the very tiniest of details. Either you need to get through on sheer meticulousness, or you need an all-absorbing passion for the work. What you’re like in your personal life, who cares (hell, my apartment looks like a nuclear disaster site). But if you’re a “don’t sweat the details” person about your work, if you skimp on research, if close is good enough for you, this is not the right career choice for you. I don’t say this out of the desire to lecture and I’m not trying to scare you off; I’m merely trying to lay out the truth so you can make an informed decision. I don’t sit in front of my computer every day shaking like a leaf under the burden of a soul-crushing responsibility and the effort of superhuman concentration, and you shouldn’t either. But we all need to understand the gravity of what we’re doing and be serious about it and honest in our evaluation of whether we can do it well.

3. Knowledge Is Less Important Than You Think.

Don’t think that just because you never remember what that one really common word you always forget means, you’re never going to be a good translator. In fact, don’t think that forgetting what those ten or twenty words mean will make you a bad translator. Translation is you in a room with your computer; you don’t have to talk to it in real time. Of course vocabulary is important. But what’s way more important is knowing what you know and what you don’t. In fact, that’s the most important thing. Because if you don’t know and you realize that, you can always find out. If you can research as appropriate and you can figure out how to find out what you don’t know, remembering the word for “farming” isn’t important. You can always look it up. ^_^

4. Knowledge Is More Important Than You Think.

Don’t think that you can translate TV shows with an A in first-year Japanese class and a dictionary. It just doesn’t work that way, for Japanese or for any language. Yes, a dictionary can–usually–define a word for you, but language isn’t just a bunch of definitions strung together with elementary grammar. You need to have both a good grounding in Japanese grammar and a good idea of how it’s actually spoken and written out there in the real world. There’s always going to be some weird sentence you need help figuring out no matter how good you get, but if you don’t have subtle and nuanced enough understanding of Japanese syntax to understand what the grammar of most every sentence you encounter is doing (it’s okay if you have to sit and ponder it for a while first or remind yourself somehow), you’re going to misinterpret and your dictionary cannot save you.

5. You Need Good English.

Whatever language you’re translating to, you need to be really damn good at that language. Say you’re translating from Japanese into English. If your English skills aren’t good enough and you can’t make appropriate choices for how to express something in English, it doesn’t matter how masterful your Japanese is.

6. “I Speak Both Languages” vs. “I’m a Good Translator.”

For some reason a lot of people seem to think that a native speaker of one language is going to be better at translating from that language (actually theorists agree that it’s best to be a native speaker of the language you’re translating into), or that someone who’s bilingual is going to be good at translating from one of their languages to another. That’s not true. Translation is a skill and an art. Speaking multiple languages doesn’t make you a good translator any more than being able to see multiple colors makes you a good painter. Just like with any craft, becoming good at translation is part talent, part attitude, part education, and part practice.

7. The Native Speaker Is Not An Oracle.

This is partly an extension of #6; as we’ve said, speaking a language doesn’t make you a good translator. So it follows that speaking a language doesn’t necessarily equate with being able to answer questions about that language well. Some native speakers are great resources for word meanings and other linguistic issues; some native speakers are horrible resources for those things. And many are somewhere in between: it depends on how good you are at asking the right questions. It’s important to have native speakers as resources if you’re not native in the language you’re translating from, but it’s equally important to choose your advisors wisely–and then use them wisely, respectfully, and kindly. Finally, keep in mind that no one is infallible. All of us make mistakes, and all of us have things we’ve got the wrong idea about or just don’t know. I’m a native speaker of English with a B.A. in linguistics, and there are certainly English words I don’t know or have wrong ideas about. ^_^

Part 2: What You Need – On Developing the Skills

The Monterey Institute of International Studies has a ten-point list of ways to prepare for being one of their translation and interpretation students. Highly-paraphrased (so much so it’s not even ten points anymore), it basically says:

-Read extensively in your native language and in the language(s) you translate from.
-Pay attention to the news in all your working languages.
-Take steps to make yourself a more knowledgeable and well-rounded person.
-Spend time abroad.
-Develop your writing, research, analysis, and (for interpreters) public speaking skills.
-Get computer savvy.
-Don’t stay up for days at a time and live on junk food.
-Remember Rome wasn’t built in a day.

I think this is a great list that applies to any translator in any field–although in the spirit of full disclosure, I will admit that as an anime translator I don’t generally feel compelled to read the newspapers in Japanese. However, that is something I feel is important to me, because I’m looking ahead to if/when I ultimately transition to working more on projects that aren’t pop-culture. At that point having that experience will become as critical as everything else on that list. So take MIIS to heart, but also know what your own goals are. There’s good solid reasoning behind everything on that list and everything will power you up. Now to flesh that out and add some things born of my personal experience, here’s my shot at a ten-point list:

Ten Ways to Become a Kickass Translator

1. Get good at the language you’re translating from.

This is the obvious one that everyone knows. But hey, it’s obvious because it’s true. To be a good translator of any language, you need to have strong skills in that language. I translate Japanese, so I need to have strong skills in it. There are many other webpages out there which can tell you better than I how to develop your skills in your chosen language. So I’ll just be short and sweet and say “use it.” Read, write, study, research, speak, listen. Also, one thing other places won’t necessarily tell you: I find my background in linguistics has allowed me to synthesize a lot of my language learning faster than my peers with other academic backgrounds.

2. Get good at the target language.

The “target” language is the language you’re translating into. So for me, my target language is generally English. You need to have intimate understanding of the language you’re translating into. I can’t stress that enough. To craft a truly fine translation you need to have truly fine skills in English (or whatever your target language may be). Otherwise you won’t be able to communicate your ideas as clearly and you won’t be able to make appropriate or inspired choices that capture the spirit and texture of a literary text. Your skill in the target language is even more important than your skill in the language you’re translating from.

If you don’t speak your target language natively: read, write, and study it extensively, become acquainted with its high literature and its use in pop culture, and make sure you have trustworthy people to advise you on language choices. Also see my tips to native speakers below.

If you’re a native speaker of your target language: good, because that’s ideal–but that alone isn’t enough. You also need to have skill in wielding the language. The best way to develop it is to read extensively and write different kinds of things (articles, essays, etc.). Also, if applicable to the kind of translation you want to do, practice poems and stories–they don’t have to be publish-me good; you just have to work with them enough to get a grip on what’s involved. It’s best if you can get some constructive criticism on them as well. If you’re still in high school or college, you’re in the best possible position to get your English (or whatever) skills up to snuff: take courses that have a heavy writing component. Try to take at least one literature-type course and at least one technical or scientific course that make you really exercise your writing, and really pay attention to the feedback from your professors and peers. (Often it helps to do a little asking around about instructors before you sign up for the courses; upperclassmen can usually tell you which instructors will be truly helpful and which won’t.)

3. Research, research, research.

Many kinds of translation, especially of books, movies, and TV shows, are about knowing a little bit about every single thing that’s ever happened everywhere. In the course of a typical week translating anime, I might have to search for information on rainforest spiders, Pakistani names, a 1960s Japanese TV drama, the Reformation, aerospace technology, and the daily habits of Tibetan monks. And then it’d be Tuesday. Obviously, you’re never going to know all that plus everything else (Norse mythology, the Koran, Italian…). So you need to get good at finding stuff out. Not only that, but the answers need to be from reliable sources where possible. So one of the most key things to develop as a translator is research skills. If you’re in high school or college, try taking courses that will help you in this, or attend a library orientation day. (In most colleges the main campus library will hold an orientation day, often including research tips, once a semester. The only trick is that you’re probably only going to find out when it is by going up to the librarian in charge and asking.) Hell, try to get a work-study job at the library; you’re bound to learn something (I did), and make money too. If you’re not in school and/or don’t work at a library, don’t worry. Many college and public libraries offer sporadic courses on research methods; you can find out and try to take one. If that’s not a possibility, you can go to a college or public library and find that mythical figure called the Reference Librarian. The Reference Librarian’s job is to know how to find out stuff. If you’re a student, your school/college Reference Librarian is fair game. If it’s a public library, try to go on a slow day or make an appointment. Then go up to him or her, introduce yourself, and ask for help learning good research skills both online and in print (if you think you’ll need to be doing most of your research online, let her know). TIP: It will help if you bring some sample questions/areas of research so that s/he can help you by example. You can kill two birds with one stone by bringing research questions that have come up in one of your translations. CAUTION: Remember, the Reference Librarian is not a research monkey. S/he is not a research assistant. S/he’s there to help you do your own research. There is nothing that will alienate a Reference Librarian faster than expecting him/her to know or find all your answers for you.

Now, it’s worth taking a step back and saying that if you’re an anime translator and you already have some experience researching things, even if you’re not the Research Queen you may still be okay. Most–but certainly not all–of your research needs can be met by developing a passionate love affair with Google (both Japanese and your home country’s). However, watch out! Do not think for one moment that Googling isn’t a skill. There are ways to utilize search engines to find out esoteric things or get helpful, reliable results. There are also ways to take three hours getting completely useless results. Maybe you want to get some tips, or maybe you just want to set yourself a long list of hard questions and try to get better and better at finding the answers. Maybe you’re the Google Queen already. No matter which it is, the fact is good research takes practice.

4. Make friends.

Remember how I said translation was about being an expert on everything ever? Well, knowing an expert on everything ever is the next best thing. Networking is the way to go for a translator. When I need to be an expert on Latin for five minutes, I call my friend who teaches Latin. When I need to be an expert on Buddhism, I call my friend who’s an expert on Buddhism. When I need to know something random about flesh, fowl, or good red herring I call my dad. There are some things where all the Googling in the world is not going to deliver the goods as well as a consultation with someone who really knows the stuff. And if you don’t have someone to call, you’re going to have to spend a day at the library. You don’t want that to happen if deadline is tomorrow! So keep the various expertises of your friends and family in the back of your mind. Remember people you’re introduced to and be nice to them. And remember, when you call one of your people in the middle of the day and say “I need to know all the Biblical implications of this Greek word right now,” ALWAYS thank them before you hang up. They save your life, so be sure to show your appreciation.

5. Have an idea of what your goal is.

It’s my belief that someone who’s thought about what her theory of translation is, what translation means to her, and what she’s really trying to do overall as a translator is going to be better at her craft. So I would read a little bit on translation theory, and then spend a little time pondering what you think and what your philosophy of translation is. As an added bonus, reading other people’s writing about translation can give you ideas for how to handle problems you encounter. I suggested some books to start with on the Translation Resources page.

6. Get in-depth knowledge of the relevant field(s).

This may sound like a no-brainer. If you’re going to spend your career translating court documents, duh, you need to learn about law. But in less cut-and-dried fields I find people don’t always think about this. For example, a literary translator needs to have a strong literary background, with in-depth knowledge of major literary works and schools of literary thought. And an anime translator absolutely must have good knowledge of anime. You need to actually study it in a disciplined way, because it’s your field. You need to learn about the animation process itself (it’ll come up in interviews and extras if not the actual show), and about anime and its history in general (to get started, see the Becoming an Anime Expert page). Finally, the cultures and histories of the relevant countries are necessary fields of knowledge for ALL translators. I don’t care if you’re translating a great work of literature or a restaurant menu, you absolutely must have some foundation in the cultures behind all the languages/locations you’re working with. Yes, that includes your own.

7. Get a little bit of knowledge about the irrelevant fields.

Hey, like we’ve said, we’re the five-minute experts on everything. So pretty much anything you learn about in any capacity will probably come in handy eventually. Take the opportunities to learn about things, and just generally pay attention to what’s going on around you (especially the way people are talking) and file it away for later.

8. Have awareness of popular culture.

If you’re like me you find keeping up with popular culture and current events kind of a pain. But the fact is, it’s going to come up. Anything the world is preoccupied with works its way into everything. So keep your eyes open. Listen to the radio on your drive to work. Just find some way to pay a little attention to what’s going on. I always end up failing to read the newspaper, so I read TIME magazine–cover-to-cover so I get the news and the random.

9. Get creativity (yes, it can be a skill).

Scientists have been telling us for a while that creativity is a learned behavior, and it’s true. The more you practice brainstorming new and different language-play ideas, the more creative you are in your translation work. What are the common problems for every translator? What are the common translation problems in your specific language? When you run across examples of them in your daily life, take a moment and try to brainstorm ways to deal with them. Sometimes you do even better in this daily-life brainstorming than on your actual work, because there’s no pressure. What I’ll do is, when I’m reading comics in Japanese and I come across a really thorny issue, I’ll ask myself how I would’ve handled it. If I think of a joke in Japanese, I ask myself how I could make a translation of it work in English. Another thing you can do is look at other translations to/from your languages. Maybe you always handle puns in the same way. Does another translator handle them differently? Maybe that can break you out of the box and get you thinking in new ways.

10. Put thought into your work setup.

Translation is inherently uncomfortable because it often involves sitting on your butt for long periods of time, crouched over your desk peering at text. It can also be extremely inefficient if there’s a problem with your workspace or your equipment. You need to futz around with various different setups physically, to make sure sitting in that chair isn’t killing you, or to find out that moving your computer monitor up a few inches saves your life. And for goodness’ sake, get up and take a walk once in a while. It’ll save your spine and reboot your brain. You also need to futz around until you find a comfortable mental setup on your computer–if you’re translating from video, maybe there’s a video playback program that fits your habits better, for example. Little changes like that will boost your efficiency. Whether you’re a religious computer user or you’re one of the few holdouts who translates with pen and paper, you need to become very proficient in computing in all the languages you use. Clients will expect that and demand it. And there will be times when it’s just the only way to be efficient. There are all kinds of complications in computing in other alphabets, especially Asian alphabets, and the issues vary from operating system to operating system, program to program. Make sure that if nothing else you figure all of that out in whatever internet browsers you’re likely to encounter and in Microsoft Word.

Well, that’s about the size of it. If I were to say anything else, I think it would be that you can’t go wrong to take a linguistics course. Any aspiring translator still in college can probably benefit from some background courses in ling. Learning about language as a general system has greatly helped me develop my skills in all areas of translation, from as basic as language learning to as advanced as finding the intersections and deviances between languages and everything in between.

Author bio

Sarah “Alys” Lindholm is a Japanese to English translator of audiovisual media, academic papers, and other fun things. In addition to her freelance business, she is currently the Translation Manager at Funimation, where she spends her days acquiring new gray hairs and making sure your anime launches on time.

Top 5 copywriting tips for translators

This post originally appeared on Anja Jones Translation blog and it is republished with permission.

Translating marketing texts can be a tricky thing. We need to relay the information from the source text and make sure it sounds beautiful in the target language at the same time. Here are our top 5 tips for good copywriting that also apply to translation.

1.    Research your audience

Before you start translating, find out who the translated texts are aimed at. What’s your target audience? Is the copy written for other businesses or end customers? What’s the age group? If your audience is young and tech-savvy, using a formal tone of voice may alienate them. If you’re dealing with businesses and professionals, writing too informally can cost you clients. Browse your customer’s website and ask for a style guide if you didn’t receive one. That way you’ll always hit the right tone of voice!

2.    Avoid nominal style

Nouns slow down the pace of your copy and your text can feel stilted. Check which nouns you really need and which can be replaced by verbs. Using more verbs loosens up the text and feels more natural to the reader.

E.g.: Terry made the decision to learn French. > Terry decided to learn French.

3.    Use the active voice

Active sentences engage the reader. Your text feels livelier and is easier to read. Passive sentences are usually longer and reveal important information only at the very end.

E.g.: The text was translated by Terry. > Terry translated the text.

4.    Keep sentences short

The rule of thumb says if you can’t quite remember how the sentence started when you’re at the end of it, it’s definitely too long. Some people have a knack for bulky sentences that span over many lines. That may sound clever in a scientific piece of research. But it will exceed the attention span of most other audiences. If you want to engage your readers, keep it short. This may mean that one sentence turns into two translated sentences.

5.    Before you submit your translations, read them out loud

It may feel a little silly at first, but this is a great way to test the readability of your translation. If you stumble over complicated constructions, or you run out of breath before the end of the sentence, chances are you need to simplify your text.

Work smarter, not harder: Scripts to enhance translator productivity

*Note: The instructions found in this post should work on the majority of Windows computers. Apple users, let us know if you come up with your own way of making this work!

Recently, my IT guy [husband] set me up with a great new tool. It has made my life as a translator so much more effective that it would be a crime not to share it with you all. I can see tips like this helping with productivity on so many levels and I’d love to hear what other hacks you all can come up with.

Here’s the trick: we set up a “script” to run on my computer so that whenever I hit CTRL+SHIFT+c on my keyboard, it automatically opens a new tab on my browser and performs a Google search for the text I’ve highlighted. I no longer need to copy some text, switch programs, open a new tab in Chrome, and then paste and search; I simply use my mouse to highlight the text I want to research and hit CTRL+SHIFT+c on my keyboard. I’ve used this about a million times since I started running the script a few months ago; here are just a few instances in which the tool has been extremely handy:

  • Reading through a source text in MS Word and came across a word I didn’t recognize
  • Wanted to make sure a phrase in my translation in Trados was the proper way to say something in target language
  • While editing a colleague’s work, wasn’t sure if the term they were using was the proper collocation
  • Reviewing my own translation, I came upon a name that I wasn’t sure was spelled correctly

You can imagine how often these situations arise in our daily work as translators, editors, transcribers, copywriters… you name it. Here’s how to implement the script on your device; be sure to let us know how it works and if you come up with any hacks of your own!

1. Download a scripting program (I used AutoHotkey)

2. Create your script (these instructions can also be found by opening the AutoHotkey program on your computer and clicking “create a script file”):

Right click on your desktop and select “New” > ”AutoHotkey Script”

Name the script (ending with .ahk extension)

Locate the file on your desktop and right click it

Select “Open with” > “Notepad”

3. Write your script: To write the script itself, just paste the following text into Notepad and hit save.

^+c::

{

Send, ^c

Sleep 50

Run, http://www.google.com/search?q=%clipboard%

Return

}

4. Run your script: To begin executing the program, just double click the desktop icon to run the script. You might not notice any change on screen, which is normal. Test that your script is working by highlighting text in any application and clicking CTRL+SHIFT+c simultaneously on your keyboard. If this operation opens your browser and does a Google search for the highlighted text, you’re all set!

5. Troubleshooting: If you find that your search script isn’t working, make sure you’ve set the script to run on startup (so that each time your computer restarts, the script runs automatically and you don’t have to remember to click on it). To do this, click Windows+r on your keyboard to open the Run dialogue box. Type “shell:startup” into the field and hit OK. This will open your computer’s Startup folder, which contains files, folders, and programs that are set to open or run automatically when you start your device. Just copy the file containing your beautiful new .ahk script from your desktop into this folder and you will no longer have to worry about it.

Another script I came up with to enhance productivity inserts a specific line of text that I use very frequently (“[Translator’s Note: Handwritten text is indicated in italics.]”) with just two clicks of my keyboard! What other uses can you come up with for scripts and macros like these?

For more ideas and help with AutoHotkey, check out their user forum here. A tutorial on the basics of AutoHotkey can also be found here. You’ll find that tools like AutoHotkey are a very simple form of computer programming, and similar to the languages that we work with as translators, computer languages have syntax, rules, and exceptions that can actually be fun and useful to learn about. Happy scripting!

Image source: Pixabay

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: