Ever wondered how a high-end translator * translates? Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at my process on a recent magazine article.
Length: 950 words Field: Biophysics
Read through the article for any initial questions to the client
In this case, the article is one in a series, and each contains a sidebar with a common title. I asked if the client has an existing translation for the sidebar title.
Look up and read the interviewed scientist’s articles, bio, and other relevant information
Journals don’t always provide free full-text access to their articles, but often the summary is enough to understand the gist of the underlying research and pick up terminology I can use to search for additional articles on the subject matter. For example: blaasjes—blisters in ordinary language—are vesicles in this scientific discipline. After half an hour’s reading, I’ve found and cross-checked field-appropriate translations for the technical words in the article.
Translate the article
Armed with a basic understanding of the science and the appropriate English terminology, I begin translating the article. Along the way I stop to double-check the scientific literature for a few “regular” words: does mimic, simulate, or imitate best reflect the desired flavor of nabootsen here? The scientist quoted in this piece used reconstitute in her own scientific articles, but she’s explaining the research for non-colleagues here. I decide on simulate for the first occurrence, and reproduce for the second.
I also do more reading for any terms or processes I feel I’ve not understood completely.
Let the article rest for a day
Time to go do something completely different, and return to edit the piece with fresh eyes.
Put on my copyeditor’s hat
Now I reread the English article in editing mode to smooth out any awkward phrasing, catch any Dutchisms that slipped in while I was “between languages,” fix typos, and ensure the text conforms to the appropriate style guide: AP, APA, MLA, and so on. I follow Chicago if no style guide has been specified.
Put on my proofreader’s hat
This time I’m combing the article for any remaining typographical errors. Done! I send the article to the client with a note that I’m happy to answer any questions and make any revisions they might want.
Review the client’s comments
My client then sends the article to the original author for checking, and it comes back with a few minor changes. (These are often outright additions to the text, rather than changes to the translation.) Following my usual policy on client-suggested changes, I accept all that are linguistically correct and make a note explaining why I’ve rejected the rest, including suggested alternatives.
Total time spent: four hours (plus a day of rest).
* Most translators working for peanuts can’t afford to spend time on research, and many don’t even edit their translations before sending them in. I have often been contacted to fix another translator’s mistakes.
This exceptionally unappetizing—and potentially upsetting—translation blunder would have been avoided by using a native speaker of the target language. Any native speaker.
I recently read a (very funny) list of wordplay jokes in English. The translator who posted them lamented the infamous difficulty of translating this kind of joke from one language to another. Too often, the word being “played” for two meanings in the source language doesn’t have a target-language counterpart.
But even in its own language, subtle differences in pronunciation can sour a wordplay joke, as one left in the comments there inadvertently proves:
The following conversation took place recently in a hotel:
“It’s bean soup, sir.”
“No matter what it has been, the question is, what is it now?”
If you speak a variant of English that pronounces been and bean the same way, this joke is funny. If you don’t, it isn’t. In fact, it’s even more nuanced than that: If an American listens to, say, John Cleese and Eric Idle acting out this joke, she’ll laugh. If she reads it to herself (out loud or in her head), she’ll say, “Oh. Yeah. Ha ha.” In the American rendering, the punchline only hits home after thinking it through—and few jokes remain funny after rational dissection.
It sounds like irony or wishful thinking, but it’s real: the country of Bhutan puts serious stock in the findings of its Gross National Happiness Commission. This tiny Himalayan country sandwiched between India and China is a promising example of what the blue economy could mean for the world.
Thanks to San-Francisco based Ode Magazine for yet another fascinating, illuminating article to translate.
I’m editing a book previously translated into English by someone else. There have been several infelicities along the way (a la “In the event that you might consider the option of snorkeling,” which I turn into “If you’re thinking of snorkeling”), and a few outright errors (paragraph where section is meant; the Dutch word for section is paragraaf). But this one takes the absolute cake:
gunmarketing —> gun marketing
Er…that would be thank-you marketing, the giving away of free items to reward customers. Gun marketing would be the promotion of guns for sale. Though I suppose, in a gun shop, the two might coincide…
I watched the 2007 film Fracture on television last night. In it, Anthony Hopkins plays a man who shoots his wife, then makes life extremely trying for the district attorney who is prosecuting him. The translation was middling, until it turned horrible:
I have no more questions, Your Honor.
Meer vragen zijn er niet, hè?
The general meaning has been preserved in the Dutch translation; it’s the register that has been violated. Grossly. The translation’s tone is this: well, I haven’t got any more questions, now do I?