A former classmate once asked me at a class reunion what I do for a living.
“I’m a translator,” I said.
“So that’s a pretty easy job, right?” he responded.
“What makes you say that?”
“Well, you just sit there and write the same thing, just in a different language.”
Yes. That’s exactly what the vast majority of people think we do all day. We just sit down and rewrite what someone else already came up with, right?
Of course that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Every translation involves a number of steps that may not be visible in the final version, but are essential to producing the translation. I’ll try to describe what is involved using the three main kinds of texts I work with: literary, specialized and marketing texts.
Literary translation is typically seen as the most “prestigious” of the different kinds of translation. Somewhat ironically, it is also one of the worst paid, but that’s a story for another time. A literary translation begins, predictably, with receiving the original. These days it almost always arrives in electronic format, but I also remember the days of translating from loose-leaf photocopies or poor-quality paperbacks that wouldn’t stay open on my desk.
Different translators take different approaches. Some read through the original carefully, sometimes more than once, taking notes as they go, looking things up as necessary (we are not walking encyclopedias, and although we do have a wide knowledge base about the culture and country where the original language is spoken, it is impossible to know everything there is to know), and thinking through any tricky passages in advance. Only then do they start working – knowing exactly where the story is going, how it all ends, what the characters are like, etc. I tend to prefer the intuitive approach: Instead of pre-reading, I start translating right away. I find the spontaneous phrasing that immediately leaps to mind as I read tends to be the most natural and least influenced by the original language. Just like the reader, I immerse myself in the story gradually as it opens up before me, and I experience the emotions and moments of surprise as they happen.
Translating literature demands a great deal of the translator. Let’s set aside commercial fiction and “beach reading” type books that mainly aim to distract the reader with no particular literary aspirations. A good translator has to be a literary historian and theorist in order to understand the author, including the author’s other work and style, and to see the work in the context of the time and place it was written. A good translator has to recognize the author’s style and know what resources and procedures to use in order to give readers of the translation an experience as close as possible to readers of the original.
Working on the translation is time-consuming and sometimes tedious, when you don’t enjoy the text or the author’s style or you can see its weaknesses (especially with a lot of commercial fiction – so many authors can come up with a story, but their style or structure leaves something to be desired). Other times translating is a joy, a challenge and a competition with your own mind to come up with the perfect phrasing. The method of working with the text can also vary – some translators make a rough draft and then rework it as many times as necessary to get it just right, while others take the time to get every sentence right the first time, so their first draft is essentially almost the final draft. I say almost, because all translations have to go through several rounds of editing and proofreading. In a perfect world, the translator would set the completed translation aside for a few months, get it out of their head. When you spend several weeks working intensively on one project, you often feel you’ve exhausted all your ideas and you have no more good solutions. Once you take a nice long break, though, you can go back in with new energy and a sense of perspective to finish the job. Usually this is not possible, however, as translations are completed under time pressure, so it is important that an experienced reviewer or editor go over the translation to catch any mistakes and offer a fresh point of view. This depends on the publisher – if they care about quality, the translator will be included in the next stages: copy editing, consulting with the editor, proof reading (the final check before publishing). With some publishers you submit the translation and don’t hear from them again until you get paid.
For specialized or technical texts, of course, the emphasis is on accuracy and correctly understanding the text. There’s no room for intuition here; all the information in the text must be conveyed without losing any of its meaning. Familiarity with the field and terminology is a must. A translator doesn’t have to be a lawyer, doctor or engineer to translate legal, medical or engineering materials, but they do have to know their area of specialization and where to find information or ask for advice. Many online groups offer a place for translators to consult each other on terminology and thorny translation problems. Sometimes a translator has to become almost a detective. In today’s globalized world many things are written in English by people who are not native English speakers and who transfer phrasing and idioms from their native languages into their English writing. Translating a professional or academic article written in English by someone who is thinking in Turkish, German or Hebrew (etc.) is often a recipe for frustration.
Many translators use computer-aided translation (CAT tools) to work with specialized texts. These programs split the original text up into segments (most often sentences) and save the translation of each segment as the translator completes it. If the same formulation or one very similar pops up later (even much later), the CAT tool automatically fills it in or offers it as an option. CAT tools take care of the formatting for you, catch typos and most spelling errors, and generally make your life easier as you translate. On the other hand, they have a tendency to freeze up at the worst possible times, and some clients even use them to push down prices. If a computer program is helping you translate, you don’t need to get paid full price, they reason. Translators often need to know how to work with several different CAT tools, as some agencies use their own online CAT tools to pass the text around between project manager, translator, reviewer and customer, keeping the whole process streamlined and transparent.
This type of translation also requires careful review to make sure all of the information from the original made it into the translation and to verify all the details: data, numbers, unit conversions, date and number formats, local name transcriptions, etc. Formatting, tables, graphs and captions all require extra time and effort.
With marketing you can never lose sight of what your text actually needs to do – to sell a product or service to a particular target group. In fact, often marketing translation isn’t translation at all. You have to rework the text completely to make it work in the target language. The translator often acts as an instant copywriter – often expected to translate in just hours an ad that took teams of specialists weeks and months to craft in the country of origin. At the same time, however, the new language version involves many different restrictions. It has to fit the prescribed format, time limit (for audio and video commercials), has to stay under a certain number of words or characters due to graphics restrictions, etc. And yet you also have to provide functional copy that is just as informative, engaging, funny or catchy as the original, and that works well on the target market. A single slogan long often involves hours of careful thought to shoehorn all those messages and connotations into just a few words.
After finishing the work and sending it to the client, the translator often faces several rounds of back-and-forth commenting and editing to suit the client. Ideally the client will have an idea of how the text works in the original language and how it should work on the target market, but sometimes the client does not understand the original language at all (or not very well) and insists on a translation that is as literal and faithful to the original as humanly possible. This of course results in awkward, unnatural phrasing that can be painful to read. And so, due to no fault of their own, the translator has to send off a version of the text they are not themselves happy with, because “the customer is always right,” after all.
And so you can see that translation involves a little more than just sitting down and rewriting what someone else already came up with. Some words almost fly onto the page, while others take hours or days of thinking. As translators we often hear that our days are numbered and we will soon be replaced by machine translation. While there are certainly some areas where a computer can do a human’s job quite well, anyone who has ever tried to translate something – or struggled to make sense of a poor translation – knows that the followers of St. Jerome are not going anywhere just yet.
* St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin and is the patron saint of translators