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Advice to translators Advice to translators
by Joseph Gatt
2020-08-18 08:28:11
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The kind of advice to translators you won't find anywhere else. In no particular order.

-I'm sure some of you have had this problem. You have to translate a text (let's say from English to French) and you have no idea what the contents are.

-For example, in 2011, I was once asked to translate a letter from French into English. The letter was apparently from someone who had just bought a house to the person who had sold him the house. I understood the general idea, but had no idea what the specifics were.

transl001_400-What I should have done: call the guy who wrote the letter, and ask questions about some of the specifics. Maybe get the guy to send me pictures or to explain what he meant in some of the wording.

-What I did: translate the document word for word. I got half the wording wrong, the general idea was wrong, and the client was angry. The translation did get fixed, but I could have spared the client the anger.

-Other problem I once encountered. I once had a Korean client who gave me a document. It had text and pictures of what seemed to be electronic circuits. I asked the Korean client to sit down with me and explain the general idea of the document, and the Korean client told me to go to hell. So I told the guy to pick someone else for the translation.

-In sum, my advice would be: NEVER translate a document that you don't understand.

-Most translators don't even read the document before translating it. Their reading of the document progresses with the translation.

-This tactic could work if you are translating documents of lesser importance, such as Blog posts, newspaper articles, or other documents of minor importance.

-But if you are working with important documents, the kind of documents where the reader of the translation must understand the document to perform his job (or an action) I would highly recommend that you understand the document before translating it. If it's legal, technical, political, or anything else the reader must understand, try to understand it yourself.

-Now to the technicalities. Some languages use formal tones, other languages tend to use a more casual tone in writing. You'll notice North American English tends to be casual, Modern Hebrew tends to be very casual, the kind of “in your face” casual. But then you have languages like French or East Asian languages which tend to adopt formal tones.

-If you're working with formal documents, or documents written in a formal tone, I suggest you look at African English rather than North American English. Why? Africans tend to adopt a more formal tone when they write, and use the kind of formal expressions and polite mannerisms that you will find very helpful when translating into English.

-Example: most Americans conclude their letters by saying “cheers” or “take care” or “sincerely” or some informal greeting like that. But if you read African English documents (let's say from Kenya or Ghana) you'll find more formal expressions like “I would like to convey my sincerest regards” or “I would like to assure you that you have my utmost esteem” or other expressions that you'll find handy if you're translating French into English for example.

-So if your Korean or Chinese letter uses a formal tone, you may want to adopt the Kenyan tone or Gambian tone rather than adopt the British or Canadian tone. Translates better the formality of the message.

-Careful with some words! A mistake I used to do a lot (and still occasionally do) is assume I know the meaning of a word when in fact I have no idea. Around 10 years ago, I had to translate the word “seed” and although I thought I knew what a “seed” was, in fact I had no concrete idea what it was. The document was about seeds for agricultural plantation, and I screwed the whole document up because I didn't really know how agriculture works and that seeds were actually this thing you planted.

-Careful with the nuances! In French, a “challenge” is a “challenge” in English as well, but in French it's only used in the context where you challenge yourself with something, as in “I will challenge myself to read three books this week.” If you're challenging someone, or have a group challenge, the French word would be “un défi.” In French a “must” is a “must” but only used in the context where there's social pressure, but no formal obligation or legal obligation (as in the French would say “getting a smartphone in 2020 is a “must.””

-Some translation anecdotes (I know I can be a bad boy sometimes).

-I once had this Korean client who asked me to translate something like 5,000 pages of English documents into Korean. I asked her about the deadline and she said “get that done by tomorrow.” Because she was f***ing with me, I put the document on Google translate, put it on an MS Word page, and sent her the document the next day with a note saying “if the Korean wording is weird, it's because I'm not Korean. Let me know if this needs fixing.” Turns out she didn't even need the document. 

-I had this other Korean client who paid me 70 bucks a day to translate 100 + pages a day from Korean to English. By the third day, I told the guy he'd have trouble finding someone who can work with that kind of speed and accuracy. Since the guy took me for granted, I quit, and sent the worst possible person to replace me. He complained to me about my replacement, and I told him “translators are a dime a dozen, go find yourself another one.”

-When things can go wrong. This French blogger used to ask me to translate his Blog posts into English. They were really fun to translate! But after a couple of months working for him (pay was OK) he blamed me for the low traffic in the English version of his Blog (I'm a translator, not a promoter!).

-I once briefly worked with a translation company that paid real good money. But the problem is they would assign me translations, and I couldn't choose my specializations. So I used to get construction stuff and telecommunications stuff, when I was more of an academic/journalistic/political/literary/general knowledge kind of translator. They complained about the quality of my translations, but that's because I knew very little about construction or telecommunications or engineering.

-Translation software nonsense. To me, a good translator is someone who has general knowledge about the topic he or she's translating, who understands the document he's translating, and who renders it into accurate and readable format in the target language. A lot of translation companies want translators who can translate EVERYTHING just because Trados will “help you.” Trados or not, if you don't understand the document, you can't render it into readable format.

-Translation for no apparent purposes (in slang we call this T-NAP or “Tea-Nap”). At some companies, just because internal politics demand that documents get translated, translators are employed to translate documents that no one reads. In Canada for example, Federal documents must be translated into French, but no one really reads the French translation. I've done a few of those translations (NOT for the Canadian government, mind you!), and they're the lazy kind of translations, because no one will notice your mistakes or your clumsy translation. When I want to have fun, I look at the French version of Canadian translations. Some of them are really funny.

-Translation incidents. Chinese, Japanese, Korean and other companies love to hand foreign companies horrible translations of their documents. Horrible. Just horrible. Canadian translations are like sit-coms, East Asian translations can be like horror movies. And the East Asians won't even apologize or try to fix the translations.

-Finally, when the original document is horrible. I once had to translate a formal document which was Korean staff regulations at a company. The document read more like the Book of Psalms or the Book of Proverbs in the Bible than like what staff regulations should be. Contents were something like “elevation of the spirit starts with dawn freshness.” I asked my client if he was serious those were staff regulations. He said they were. I did my translation, took the money, and ran.

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