How to be good (1). Tips for translators

I got a pleasant surprise a couple of weeks ago when I logged on to Twitter and found that several translators had been tweeting and retweeting the link to the “How to Be a Good Translator” page on my website. If you haven’t seen them, here are the tips from that page — I hope you find them helpful.

  1. Love language, especially your own. And keep studying it.
  2. Learn to write well.
  3. Learn about and study your passive language and the culture it comes from.
  4. Only translate into your own language.
  5. Select a specialist area of expertise, and study and be prepared to learn more about your specialist subject. Constantly.
  6. Read: books, newspapers, blogs, magazines, adverts, style guides, cereal packets…
  7. Listen: to TV, the radio, friends and family, strangers in the street, on the bus, in bars, in shops…
  8. Attend workshops, seminars and conferences in your subject area – listen to the experts, absorb their language. Even their jargon – but try not to use it.
  9. Keep up with current affairs.
  10. Keep your IT skills up-to-date.
  11. Practise and hone your skills — keep up with your training.
  12. Listen to the words that you write (some writers and translators read their texts out loud to themselves). Languages each have their own rhythm. If your writing doesn’t “sound” right, try changing the word order, not just the words.
  13. Use your spell-checker. Use it judiciously, but use it. Always.
  14. Print out your translated text and read it on paper before delivering it to your client. Always. Especially if you use computer-assisted translation (CAT) software. Print it out.
  15. Ask yourself if your translation makes sense. If it makes you stop, even for a second, and think “what does that really mean”?, then there’s something wrong.
  16. Write clearly and concisely, using the appropriate sentence- and paragraph-length for your target language. Use simple vocabulary. You can convey even complex ideas using clear, straightforward language.
  17. Inform your client of any mistakes, typos or ambiguous wording you find in the source text.
  18. Find ways to add value for your clients.
  19. Always keep your reader in mind.
  20. Always use your brain. That’s what makes a good translator a really good translator.

The list is of course subjective, and not complete (just take a look at Lanna Castellana’s description of the translator’s ideal life, training and career path!). So if you’ve got good tips that I’ve missed out, we’d love to hear about them in the comments.

By Marian Dougan

Published by Marian Dougan

Marian is a translator and editor (specialising in web content) currently based in Glasgow, Scotland. Marian previously lived in Italy for over 20 years, working as a language teacher, translator and policy analyst with the British Embassy in Rome. A qualified member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and its Italian-language and ITI Scotnet networks, she is currently Scotnet's Convenor and Deputy Webmaster. From 2003 to 2006 Marian taught translation skills at the Italian Department of Glasgow University and now gives Master Classes as part of the new Masters in Translation Studies course. She also conducts web-writing and usability workshops to help people improve their websites and communicate more effectively with their readers, users and customers. In September 2014 Marian obtained User Experience Certification, with specialisation in Web Design, from the Nielsen Norman Group. She loves language, especially English, and is convinced that learning languages opens up people’s minds and horizons (and increases their brainpower!). To share her enthusiasm, she advises schools and educational authorities on language skills and enterprise. She gives talks to pupils on how to combine language studies with other subjects and so enhance their potential and increase their career options. Marian is an active member of organisations such as: Scottish Council Development and Industry (SCDI); Association of Scottish Businesswomen; Dunbartonshire Chamber of Commerce and the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Scotland. She also loves architecture, design, fashion (British Vogue!), cities and chocolate. She’s a great fan of Twitter and you can also find her on Linkedin.

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  1. buon senso e tanta esperienza sono l’essenza di questi consigli buoni per chiunque voglia tradurre davvero a regola d’Arte.

  2. Thanks for that article, Marion! We do forget about all these little things from time to time, so it’s good to have someone write a reminder.

    “Listen: to TV, the radio, friends and family, strangers in the street, on the bus, in bars, in shops…” – I even stopped listening to music while using public transport. There is too much to miss!

    1. Thanks Marta. I don’t know about you, but I feel as if my language antenna is always on – listening to the general hubbub of chatter and then tuning in to a word or phrase that catches my attention.

  3. 13.1 – Use your spell-checker, always, and use it again every time you touch your file. But don’t rely blindly on your spell-checker’s suggestions.

    16.1 – But if the author of your source text is deliberately convoluted, ambiguous and obscure, If she uses unusual sentence and paragraphs patterns in her native language, you have to find ways to do the same in your translation.

    1. Thanks, Riccardo. I fully agree with your point on the use of spell-checkers.
      But I have a couple of problems with your second comment.

      1. In my experience (of translating from Italian) some authors do indeed write in a deliberately convoluted, ambiguous and obscure manner because they see this as a way of preserving their elite status (university professors come to mind). Only they and their similarly arrogant peers, their thinking goes, are intelligent enough to understand this convoluted, ambiguous and obscure waffle, and too bad for the rest of us plebs. So you could say there’s an argument for preserving that convolution, ambiguity and obscureness (does this word exist?) in the translation. Such authors simply don’t deserve to be read, whether in the original or the translated version.

      2. If, on the other hand, literary authors use obscure language and unusual sentence/paragraph patterns as part of their artistic expression, then the translator must of course try to preserve those features — they are an integral part of the literary experience.

      3. The more “institutional” texts I translate, however, the more convinced I am that many Italians in government and professional positions have never been taught to write clearly. Their convolution, ambiguity and obscureness are not intentional, they simply don’t know how to write in any other way. And they probably haven’t been given a clear remit as to readers’ needs and/or the purpose of their text. As a translator, I see my job as helping people to communicate their ideas across international and linguistic borders. So I simplify and clarify, and cut sentence and paragraph lengths, and try to shed light on the overall meaning of the text. In this, I like to think I’m doing both authors and readers a favour.

      In short, I think both authors and translators should put their egos aside and keep one person clearly in their minds: the reader.

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