I just spent seven miserable hours editing a translation that barely deserved that name. Seven hours, however, was not enough, and I had to request additional time lest the client receive an unfinished and unpolished monstrosity. In spite of the hours of endless drudgery, the pain in my neck and my battered old soul, however, I remain a firm believer in that old cliché by which it is claimed that you can always get something positive out of bad situations. Or, at the very least, a blog post. If you are a translator, or a translator in training, here are some tips I was able to salvage from my strung out brain. I’m sure you’ve heard them many times before. But just in case…
- If you’re going to cheat, at least do your postediting. Okay, fine, I feel terrible saying that using a machine translation tool is cheating. Sorry if you were offended. I was just trying to be cute. But I do mean the part about postediting. After a careful autopsy of the nightmarish document that is putting me to sleep tonight, I understood in part what happened: the translator ran out of time and put the part he or she could not finish through a machine translation tool. How do I know? Even though the entire translation is of a deplorable quality, after a certain section it just smacks of Google Translator Toolkit, or some similar data-based translation tool. This translation was then carted off to me with all the rough edges that MT’s are not sophisticated enough to eliminate, and believe me, they are many. So, if you decide to implement a machine translation tool because you’re running out of time or you just are very confident in the technology, by all means, knock yourself out. (I normally do not use machine translation; I find that the postediting takes me longer than actually translating. Perhaps this is material for another post.) However, when you’re done, please read the document. Along with the source text. Sometimes a sentence will sound good to you (and to the editor), but when compared to the original, you find out it doesn’t say quite the same thing. Make sure that what you’re sending over to your client both makes sense in your target language and does not contain meaning errors.
- Read. I’m sure you know that a translator is an avid reader. We need to be. If you don’t enjoy reading, you’re not fit for this profession. It’s as simple as that. You don’t have to enjoy reading all kinds of things, but you need to enjoy reading some things. One reason for this is that you work with text; reading is what you will be doing 90% of the time; the other 10% of the time you’re thinking (as you pace about the room, or during a bathroom break, or during your morning jog, or whatever it is that you do), trying to crack that problem. You read when you get the source file, then you read what you’re typing (hopefully), then you read for research. Another reason is that the more you read, the more exposure you get not only to vocabulary, but to common expressions and patterns of phrasing ideas. This is one reason why they tell you to read, and read a lot, in all your working languages. But there is yet another reason: the more you read and the better you get at reading the more you understand what you read. Well, duh, you might say; if I read something I understand it as I read it. Well, not necessarily. You see, one of the commonest mistakes I’ve found in my very short time as a professional translator and editor is misunderstanding of the source text: you trailed your eyes over the sentence, you thought you understood what you saw, and you went on to create your source language version. In the process, your brain skipped over a word it thought was boring or meaningless, you reformulated the idea to fit something that was already in your mind or that you’d seen or read before, or one of the million other things that occur in the milliseconds your eyes switch from the source to the target takes place. Read. And then reread. Not necessarily after you’ve finished every segment. That would be tiresome and would take you a long time. Perhaps you’re the proverbial watercolorist and start out with a draft product of a sudden rush of inspiration. That’s fine. But when the piece is done, give it a polish. And read that source text carefully. There’s more to it than meets the eye.
- Don’t take it so literal. Professional translators, or professionals in training, should not have to be told not to ever translate word for word. But sometimes apparently they do need to be told because it seems to happen more often than I would prefer. That is how you get a verb followed by the wrong preposition because the structure was copied from the original, for example. This is not just about purism and preserving the precious correctness of the language. This is a matter of meaning. In some cases, the resulting jumble may be understood by a native speaker of the target language; in many others, it would be confusing and even misleading. Be careful around structures, especially verb plus preposition combos. As you probably already knew, prepositions are tricky things, and sometimes they’re semantically attached to the verb, sometimes to the object (this applies to most European languages only, of course). When they’re semantically attached to the verb, there usually is a very specific structure that requires a particular verb to go only with a particular preposition if you’re looking for a particular meaning. But prepositions aren’t the only thing to watch out for. Read your target language sentences aloud and try hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone who only has that text to go by. Would they understand it? More importantly, would they get from it the meaning the original was trying to convey?
- The target isn’t everything. When revising a text, I usually don’t look at the source until after giving the translation an initial read (if I have the time, that is; some deadlines don’t allow you that luxury). This is to allow me to do what I recommended above: put myself in the position of someone who doesn’t have the source text to go by. I can catch a lot of weird things with this approach. For example, I know exactly where a translator got caught in the term-word trap. This usually happens when you translate in a linear fashion: left to right, until an obstacle impedes passage to the rest of the path because you just don’t know how to say that in your TL, so you go to your usual glossaries and dictionaries and plug in the term that your trusted source provided you with (that’s how we got apalancamiento and retroalimentación in Spanish stuck uncomfortably in the wrong contexts, like a puritan wife in the Red Light District). But take a moment to read your TL sentence. Do you even know what that word you just plugged in there means? Make sure that you understand the original concept in the SL before you even attempt to translate it. Go ahead, look it up in the monolingual dictionary. It might not mean what you thought it meant or, when you look further down the list, you see the word can have other meanings you weren’t even aware of. This is also one key step in deciding whether something is a term or a word, which will then help you decide how to look for an appropriate translation (perhaps also material for another post).
Bottom line: Read and Revise. And don’t get caught in the trappings of being a translator. Some people who’ve had some experience with translation and claim to enjoy it end up being too “trigger-happy”: they enjoy the shooting but not cleaning up the scene. If you enjoy learning languages and then using them, you may find it entertaining to sit down and write out a target language version of something written in a foreign language. That’s fine. But that’s not all there is to translation. “Now comes the real work” is what I often think to myself once I’ve finished actually translating something. The “real work” is rereading my translation for coherence and consistence. The “real work” is then rereading the resulting version line by line by line along with the original. No matter how much you trust yourself and how good you may be, your brain can and will play tricks on you. You need to comb through that document to make sure there are no dead bodies and no evidence on the scene.
And now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I can rest in peace (not literally, of course).
¡Hasta la próxima!