What you do with what you’ve got

June 15, 2017 3:30 pm

Translator training – and much discussion in professional translation circles – tends to focus on the knowledge base. At its simplest, this is competence in the source and target languages. More widely, it includes such things as technical knowledge of software applications, and knowledge of terminology in specific subject fields or institutional settings. At first sight, this seems a reasonable approach. After all, what else could training and professional discussion focus on?

I wonder whether this focus is really helpful. One of the particular challenges of translation is that the knowledge base is incredibly broad. In fact, I am tempted to say it is limitless.

There are some ways of restricting this: by working in a single language combination, in a few specialist fields or in specific institutional settings. However, as I have argued elsewhere, the real world has a nasty habit of defeating such attempts: institutions such as the EU or the UN often demand multiple language combinations, while true ‘single-subject’ texts are surprisingly rare. (Hybrid texts such as a legal contract about electrical equipment hire, the financial statements of a pharmaceutical company or a marketing text for a surf school are the norm, not the exception.)

Likewise, the focus on the technical aspects of computer-aided translation tools strikes me as missing the point. Anyone can master the basics of CAT (import, export, applying a TM, using terminology etc.) in a day or two. If you have more specific needs (e.g., because of the nature of your client base or your project management role) you can probably get to grips with the more esoteric aspects of the software in a week or two. The real challenge for a translator using CAT tools is – to put it crudely – how to stop it ruining your style. How do you avoid falling into the trap of over-literal translation that cleaves too closely to the source text? How do you deal with supra-segmental and ‘whole text’ issues such as cohesion, the need to split and join sentences, the flow of an argument, repetition and so on? You can’t do this in a day or even a week – these are challenges that will stay with you for the rest of your professional career.

If you think I am overstating the problem, I would ask you to pause and consider the following.

  • In university translation courses, teaching is frequently delivered by staff who have little or no professional translation experience and whose background is in language teaching. In other words, they are ‘qualified’ by their mastery of the knowledge base (in this case, the source and perhaps target languages) not by their skills or experience as translators.
  • The online training offered by two of the most widely used CAT tools – SDL and memoQ – focuses entirely on technical issues. There is simply no mention of the ‘soft’ skills that I refer to above and which I think are the real challenge to successful use of CAT tools.
  • Translator assessment in both academic and professional settings tends to privilege ‘objective’ criteria (accurate transfer of meaning, correct syntax and punctuation) over more ‘subjective’ ones (the importance of clarity, readability and style), with the result that texts can be marked as acceptable if they do not contain any clear errors (knowledge base failings) even if they do not meet the standards of high-quality writing that is fit for its intended purpose (‘soft’ translation skills).

So what is the solution?

  • Well, for a start we need to attribute less importance to the knowledge base (language, terminology, software) and more importance to how we exploit this base (through problem solving and research skills, and reading and writing with reference to sense and context). This should be built into all translator training from the very first day, and should also be put at the centre of training in specialist tools.
  • Translator assessment should be adapted to reflect the realities of the translation process: translation is, among other things, a subjective, aesthetic activity and assessment needs to take this into account.
  • We need to balance our emphasis on specialisation with a recognition both of the limits of such specialisation and of the fact that, whatever the degree of specialisation, this can never negate the need for a more craft or skills-based approach.

*I have borrowed the title of this post from a wonderful song by Si Kahn. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the song is not about the translation profession. Or at least not directly. The song is about human dignity, making best use of your talents and doing right by others. And that, ultimately, is also what this post is about. Here’s a rough but beautiful version of the song by Ben Grosscup:

Jack in the box? Direct clients and subject specialisation

December 2, 2016 11:58 am


I blogged the other day about how a single text can often cover a range of specialist subject areas, and suggested that the whole idea of subject specialisation for translators may have been oversold.

When we are not being urged to specialise by subject area, translators are generally encouraged to find direct clients. There is usually an assumption that the two go hand in hand: that your client will be active in a particular sector and will generate texts in the associated specialist area.

But if the idea that individual texts can be categorised by subject area is often questionable, then the notion that clients will helpfully stick to their own chosen industries when producing copy strikes me as wishful thinking.

I do a lot of work for a large pharmaceutical company. This morning I’ve been despatching a batch of short texts for them. Here’s what I’ve done so far today:

  • an email regarding malfunctioning public display systems
  • a press release on an architectural prize
  • an internal item about a professional seminar on coagulation therapy
  • an internal item about a professional seminar on pharmaceutical technology

So, at least four different fields (IT, architecture, clinical medicine, medical technology) and three text types. What’s more, although all of these texts required me to decipher some technical content and identify the correct target language terminology, in every case the real challenge was more general: to work out the meaning of the source text (both technical and general) and to find the most elegant and culturally appropriate way of expressing the author’s message in English.

I sometimes worry that the focus on specialisation leads new (and not so new!) translators to assume that the biggest challenge of any text is to match the correct target language terminology with the source terms. Of course that’s important, but we shouldn’t allow it to obscure the often far more challenging ‘general’ issues of style and meaning that cut across specialisms.

Today’s special: niche soup

November 30, 2016 10:19 am


The standard advice to any translator trying to move upmarket is to specialise. It obviously makes sense – you should be able to produce a better standard of work, command higher fees and build stronger relationships with your customers. However, I sometimes wonder if this advice gives the misleading impression that the translation industry (and the world) can be separated into distinct niches.

I am currently working on an expert witness opinion for a claim for damages.

Legal, right?

But legal texts are never just legal: laws, disputes, contracts are almost always about something in the real world (the exception, I guess, are laws whose sole purpose is to regulate the legal system). In this case, the expert witness opinion is about an industrial property dispute.

So it’s industrial property.

Not so fast. This industrial property dispute is between two (groups of) pharmaceutical companies.

So it’s pharmaceuticals.

Or maybe not. Most of the details of the expert witness opinion actually relate to the financial impact of the disputed behaviour in terms of loss of earnings, impact on market share and so on.

So my legal text is actually a legal-industrial property-pharmaceuticals-corporate finance text.

The world is a messy place. And sometimes the translation industry is, too.

How NOT to build your translator brand on Twitter

October 19, 2016 2:02 pm


I should start by saying that I’m not keen on the whole concept of “person as brand”. (And one of the many benefits of not being brand-conscious is that you’re less likely to commit any of the crimes listed below.) However, the reality is that many translators are on Twitter to consciously build their brand, and there’s certainly an argument that, simply by connecting with colleagues and with existing or potential clients, your “brand” is at stake even if you deny its very existence.

Having got that caveat out of the way, here are some of my least favourite ways in which some over-enthusiastic advocates of personal branding are using Twitter (and helping to ruin it for the rest of us!).


I’m surprised at the number of translators who think it’s acceptable (let alone desirable) to post a generic advert for their services on a daily basis. This:

  • will annoy your followers
  • will give the impression that you are desperate for business
  • will negate any impact that a well-designed advert might have.


There seems to be a category of translator who has decided that the best way to project a professional image is to flood their Twitter feed with articles about marketing and business techniques. If you genuinely have insights to share, then please do so. (There are plenty of translator-entrepreneurs out there who have a lot to teach their colleagues.) However, if all you are doing is rehashing yet another tired list of “marketing tips”, “advice on obtaining direct clients”, “looking after your customer”, then please don’t. You will fool nobody.


Another common Tweet runs along the lines, “X% of the world’s population don’t read English. Why you should translate your website.” Who is this aimed at? Most of the followers of any translation-focused account fall into one of two camps: members of the translation industry (translators, LSPs, clients etc.); others (friends, family, social connections, old schoolfriends etc.). The members of the first camp have already got this message. The members of the second camp are not interested in it. Repeating the message ad nauseum will just annoy both groups (and make you look like an idiot along the way).


So what should people post? A good starting point is to restrict yourself to content that ticks at least one of the following boxes:

  • interesting
  • useful
  • funny.

In other words, instead of “building your brand”, just behave like the kind of human being that others might want to interact with. After all, we spend a lot of time saying that human beings are better than computers when it comes to translation. And we’re better than brands, too.

“Avoid the obvious word, even if it is the literal equivalent of the original”

September 24, 2016 8:27 pm

I love this from Michael Hofmann. There is really a whole philosophy of translation packed into this one small paragraph.

Image result for michael hofmann

One of his guiding principles for translating, he says, is to avoid the obvious word, even if it is the literal equivalent of the original. When the opening page of a Roth novel contained the word Baracke, he insisted on going with “tenement” rather than “barracks”. In the second paragraph of Hofmann’s version of Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa doesn’t ask “What happened to me?” (Was ist mit mir geschehen?), but “What’s the matter with me?”. He liked the phrase, he says, because it sounds like someone having trouble getting up after a heavy night. “Nobody will notice, but you have taken a step back from the original. You have given yourself a little bit of self-esteem, a little bit of originality, a little bit of boldness. Then the whole thing will appear automotive: look, it’s running on English rather than limping after the German.”

The quote comes from a longer article in the Guardian, which is well worth a read.

Donald Rumsfeld and translation research

September 20, 2016 5:29 pm

In February 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush’s Secretary of Defense from 2001 to 2006, was asked about the evidence linking Iraq to weapons of mass destruction. He famously replied “there are known knowns; there are known unknowns; and there are unknown unknowns”.


The remark was widely mocked at the time as a nonsensical attempt to justify the subsequent invasion of Iraq, the “unknown unknowns” turned out not to exist, and the consequences of the invasion are still playing out in Iraq and across the Middle East today.

However, if instead of talking about non-existent chemical weapons factories, Rumsfeld had been talking about translation research, his point would have been a good one.

In translation we have:

  • known knowns: words, phrases, real world knowledge etc. of which we are certain – no need to research this
  • known unknownswords, phrases, real world knowledge etc. of which we are uncertain – we always need to research this
  • unknown unknowns: words, phrases, real world knowledge etc. that we think we have understood but which actually contain different/additional meanings.

The problem is that, by definition, we don’t know when our source text may contain “unknown unknowns”. As a result, we don’t realise that we need to research them. The solution, fortunately, is simple:

Research everything about which there is the slightest cause for doubt, including all real world information, any parts of the source text where your understanding clashes with the context or with a common sense interpretation, and any phrasing in your translation that you suspect of being influenced by the source text.”

In other words, if in doubt, Google it. And, in the spirit of Donald Rumsfeld, if you’re in doubt about whether you’re in doubt, then you should still Google it.



Don’t write like a robot

September 19, 2016 5:05 pm

A personal bugbear of mine is text that reads as if it has been written by a robot. One example that springs to mind is the use of the formula “and/or”. Logically, this make perfect sense – “apples and/or oranges” technically provides three options: “apples, “oranges” or “apples and oranges”. However, most humans are perfectly capable of understanding, based on context, when the apples and oranges are mutually exclusive and when the text means you can have one or both types of fruit. If you’re writing for humans, it’s best to write as if you are one.

Literary translation resources

August 31, 2016 10:21 am

This year I’ve added some literary translation to my Spanish translation workshop for the M.Sc. students at Heriot Watt. In the process, I’ve been hunting around for relevant resources, so I thought I’d gather some of them together here:

George Orwell’s six rules of writing: adapted for translators

August 28, 2016 5:55 pm

In his essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell railed against confusing and unclear writing.


He summarised his advice in six rules, which have been the mainstay of English style guides ever since:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in  print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Unlike writers, translators are constrained by their source text. (I also bridle at the absolute nature of Orwell’s rules.) So I have adapted them for translators:

  1. When translating a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech, you don’t always need to use the direct equivalent in the target language. You may not wish to use a figure of speech at all. And if you do, try to avoid using any figure of speech that feels tired and worn out.
  2. When translating a source text that is packed with long words, remember that the best translation will often involve shorter words.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, consider doing so. It may make your translation clearer and more elegant.
  4. Avoid using the passive where the active would be a more natural choice.
  5. Only use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if the field and register of the text mean this is the best choice or if there is no everyday English equivalent.
  6. Never write anything that is outright barbarous, even if the source text reads as if it was written by Attila the Hun.

“sub” bingo

September 27, 2015 2:45 pm

People often ask me what sort of texts I translate. Anyone asking me this question over the last week was likely to be greeted by a grunt, as I am currently crawling my way towards the end of 34,000 words of Bolivian bureaucratese. The only thing that keeps me sane (or at least makes the madness of it all bearable) is to play little games of bingo as I go. Here is the winning ticket in this week’s “sub” bingo:

“Los Subreceptores de los subcomponentes del proyecto de subvención, …”

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