I was recently interviewed by Tess Whitty from Marketing Tips for Translators about a presentation I held at the 56th Annual ATA Conference in Miami last November. The subject of my presentation was how to improve your writing skills because, as translators, we are expected to do more than just convey the meaning of a text into another language, we also have to be excellent writers. In the interview, I talk about some of the methods that I have worked for me, both in improving my writing skills and in marketing my services.
This is the article, titled “Translating Fashion”, which I wrote for the Spring 2015 newsletter of the British Costume Society (click the image for a more readable version):
One of my main areas of specialisation is fashion. Last year I joined the British Costume Society, because they offer a lot of useful information on both historical and contemporary fashion and they regularly organise events on the subject of dress, fashion and textiles. They also publish a newsletter for their members. Last year I contacted the editor of the newsletter to ask whether they would be interested in an article about translating for the fashion industry and they said they would be.
I decided to focus on the translations from English into Dutch which I did for the exhibition “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier”, which was held in Rotterdam in 2013, since the previous Costume Society newsletter contained a review of this exhibition, which was on display in London in the summer of 2014.
The aim of my article was to show how a translator works and what he or she needs, so I started by explaining that I need to know what kind of style the client is looking for and that it is helpful to have previously written texts, glossaries and/or style guides as a guideline. I then went on to explain how important it is to have proper visuals, especially if you have to translate detailed descriptions of the designs, as was the case for this exhibition. I gave a couple of examples of texts that were really unclear without visuals and how I was able to solve this (I sent them photographs I had taken myself at the exhibition to illustrate this and they were printed along with the article). I ended by listing some other problems I encountered, such as typos in the text and phrases that were in French instead of in English (my working language; I do not translate from French) and how I managed to work around those issues.
Before I sent the article to the editor I had it proofread by Elise Reynolds, as English is not my native language.
I really enjoyed writing the article and I hope it gives people who have never worked with a translator before some idea of how translators tend to work.
I see more and more articles, workshops and webinars on how to translate websites. What strikes me is that most of these only focus on the technical part of translating a website: how to edit HTML files, how to make sure the website will be found by search engines, etcetera. Although these are obviously very important aspects of translating a website, I miss one other essential aspect: creative writing. It is all very well to get your website ranked number one in Google, but if the website itself puts off visitors because it is badly written, the whole website becomes pointless. It is important to keep in mind that, in the end, websites are written/translated for human visitors, not just for search engines.
A business website serves as an online business card. It is all about first impressions. And first impressions on the web last only a couple of seconds: if you don’t manage to engage the visitor within these few seconds, he or she will move on. Text is an important part of this first impression: website content shouldn’t be just grammatically correct without any spelling mistakes, it should also be well-written and engaging. It should draw visitors in, encourage them to continue reading. Here are a couple of tips to achieve this.
Headings should be catchy
Make sure headings stand out and arouse the reader’s interest. This means that a literal translation of the heading in the source text may not work, especially not if the resulting translation is too long or misses out on puns or a play of words in the original heading. In many cases, headings should really be treated as taglines and should be transcreated rather than translated.
Don’t make texts too long
People who are looking for information on the internet don’t want to have to go through pages of text. They want to be able to quickly decide whether the website they’ve found contains the information they are looking for. As a translator you don’t usually have much influence on the total length of the text, but you can at least try to make your translation easy to read or scan and keep it as concise as possible.
Choose the right style and use it consistently
The source text will already give you an indication of how formal or informal your translation should be, but since every language has its own style, it is best to discuss with the end client which style works best for their target audience. Some languages, such as Spanish, French, German and Dutch, have a formal and an informal form of “you”. Again, discuss with the client which one they prefer. However, just because the client prefers the formal version, that doesn’t automatically mean the style of the text has to be formal too. In Dutch, for example, it’s perfectly fine to use the formal “you”, but still keep the text relatively informal and playful. Also, make sure you use the same style consistently throughout the whole website.
Create different websites for different language variations
Many languages are spoken in more than one country and each country may have its own version of the language. Depending on how different the variations of the language are, it may not be a good idea to create just one website for all countries. For example the Dutch language used in the Netherlands and Belgium is officialy the same language, but in practice they are very different. Some words or phrases used by the Dutch sound awkward to Belgian readers and vice versa. So it’s much better to have separate language versions for Belgium and the Netherlands.
Be aware of cultural references
Website texts may contain references which only make sense to readers of the source text, for example, a reference to a local holiday or tradition. Always check whether this reference makes sense to readers of the translation as well and if not, find a solution: replace it with a local reference, come up with a completely different solution or maybe just leave it out.
Write for human beings, not for search engines
There are plenty of SEO experts around who can give you excellent advice on how to get your website ranked high on Google. However, these experts sometimes tend to focus on SEO too much and forget that the text is ultimately read by human beings. They will, for example, advise you to use specific keywords as much as possible in your text, but who wants to read a text which keeps repeating the same word or product name over and over again? The best solution is to compromise: try and use the keywords you are given as much as possible while still keeping the text readable.
Write appealing texts
This is especially important for websites which sell a product or service. You want to advertise this product or service, so make sure your text is appealing and easy to read. You are trying to convince people to buy this product or service, so tell them why they should pull out their wallet, in their language. Just because it is written text, it doesn’t have to read like an academic paper.
The power of simple words by Terin Izil (lesson) and Sunni Brown (animation), TED-Ed Lesson.
I find that a lot of people only use CAT tools for repetitive texts. And that is of course what they were originally developed for. Modern CAT tools, however, have so many other useful features that it’s worth considering using them for non-repetitive texts as well.
Here are some of the reasons why I use my CAT tool for most of my texts, even creative texts:
It’s great when a client provides you with a terminology list, but I personally hate having to go back and forth between my translation and a terminology list, especially when you end up with more than one list (not unusual, in my experience). If you import your terminology list(s) in your CAT tool, you will automatically be notified if a term is available in the list and you can easily insert it in your translation. You can also easily edit your terminology list or add new terms to the list.
Even if texts are not repetitive, consistency is still important. The concordance feature in your CAT tool allows you to search for words or phrases so you can check how they were translated before. This is also very useful in case you haven’t got a terminology list (yet).
- Quality control
These days, CAT tools offer more and more quality control options. You can have your translation checked for, among other things, correct punctuation, conversion of numbers, tags and consistent terminology. If, like me, you tend to mix up numbers (typing 1956 instead of 1965 for example), it’s good to know you no longer have to worry about this, because your CAT tool will warn you when you’ve made a mistake.
- Reference material
Ever received a 200-word translation job which came with about ten different bilingual and monolingual reference files and going through all those reference files took almost as long as actually translating the text? I have… CAT tools offer alignment options and ways to import reference files which help you efficiently find the information you need in those reference files while you’re translating.
Clients love it when you are able to deliver their prettily formatted Word document or PowerPoint presentation in exactly the same format. When using a CAT tool, you don’t have to bother with the formatting: you can focus on the text while working in the CAT tool and when you are finished you can export your translation in exactly the same format. I’ve found this is especially useful for PowerPoint presentations containing lots of diagrams with text boxes: instead of having to edit every single text box separately to enter your translation, all you need to do after you have exported your translation is go through the slides to check whether the text fits in the boxes and adjust their size if needed.
You always have a backup of your translations and because each segment is saved after you have translated it, you will never lose more than one sentence of your work if your computer crashes. I discovered the advantage of this very soon after I started working with a CAT tool years ago: just when I was about to save my 1.5-page translation to send it to the client, Word crashed and my Word file was corrupted. If I hadn’t used my CAT tool, I would have had to do the translation all over again, but now I was able to take the original source file and have it pre-translated using my TM.
My CAT tool always knows exactly how much progress I’ve made: it indicates the percentage of translation/proofreading I’ve completed and for exact figures I can run an analysis at any time. I find this particularly useful for larger projects.
Here’s one I forgot when I initially wrote this post: How many times do your clients send you an updated version of the source text, preferably when you’ve just finished translating the original version and without using Track Changes? No problem if you’ve translated the text in a CAT tool: you simply re-import the text, pre-translate everything that is the same and you will only have to go through the sentences/segments that were changed (and your CAT tool even marks the differences between the original and the updated text). If necessary, you can also have your CAT tool track all the changes.
These are the reasons I use my CAT tool for pretty much every translation I do. One downside, especially for more creative texts, is that, by default, a CAT tool splits up your text in segments based on sentences. Most CAT tools, however, allow you to define different ways of segmentation and I have found that paragraph segmentation, rather than sentence segmentation, works better for creative texts. Paragraph segmentation will lead to fewer match results, so it is not recommended for repetitive texts, but since creative texts are typically less repetitious anyway, matches aren’t really an issue.
In our efforts to keep up with a language that is not our own, we sometimes forget to take care of our native language, something which is particularly important if you no longer live in your native country. Depending on your native language and the country you have moved to, you may have to go the extra mile to keep up with your native language.
It is probably easier for people whose native language is English or another major language, because they will always find ways to listen to their language, but it is much more difficult if your native language is rarely spoken outside of your native country. I can imagine, for example, that it is fairly easy for a native speaker of English to keep up their native language in my country, the Netherlands, because we have plenty of access to TV and radio channels, newspapers and magazines, journals and books in English. If, however, I would decide to move to the UK or the US, it would be a lot harder for me to find sources in Dutch.
Also, it may be less of a problem if you mainly translate highly technical texts with their own language and terminology, which you can keep up with by reading specialized journals. But being up-to-date with your native language is essential if you translate more creative texts.
There are several problems which can arise if you don’t keep up your native language. For one, language changes all the time: new words are created, other words are no longer used. Spelling sometimes changes. And then there’s the problem of the target language interfering with the native language. When people have lived in another country for a while and don’t get the chance to hear their own native language on a regular basis, their second language tends to interfere with their native language. The result: translations that are too literal and read like translations, rather than a text written by a native speaker.
How to keep up with your native language
Here are a couple of tips to help you keep up with your native language:
- If possible, try to watch TV channels from your native country, preferably programmes such as talk shows. They will help you keep up-to-date with the latest news and developments and the latest language use. If you do not have access to TV channels, try the internet; many TV channels make their programmes available on the internet. If you can’t find a way to watch TV programmes, watch DVDs of recent films or TV series. DVDs can easily be ordered online.
- Listen to radio shows from your native country. This is very easy to do these days via sites such as www.tunein.com, which allow you to listen to digital radio stations from all over the world.
- Read in your native language. Not just journals and articles on the subjects you specialize in, but anything from newspapers and magazines to contemporary literature. There are plenty of (free) online newspapers and magazines to be found on the internet and books can be ordered online, or you might even be able to get them from a local bookshop or library if your language isn’t too “obscure” in the country you live in.
- Use websites of businesses, organisations or the government in your native country as a reference. They can be especially useful if you want to keep up with the kind of language and tone of voice used for a specific target audience (e.g. informal language for a young audience, more formal language for a wide audience).
- Visit your native country on a regular basis, preferably once a year. That is the only way to “soak up” everyday life and notice what has changed, both in society in general and in the language. And of course to speak your native language.
All these tips can, of course, also be used to keep up with your source language!
Newspapers at a newsagent in the Netherlands: available in English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Polish, Russian and Chinese
A lot of people don’t seem to know the difference between a translator and an interpreter. In fact, many people don’t even know there is a difference and think the terms are synonymous. They’re not.
Dictionaries don’t seem to be very helpful either when it comes to explaining the difference. Here’s what the Oxford Dictionary of English has to say about it:
interpreter: a person who interprets, especially one who translates speech orally.
translator: a person who translates from one language into another, especially as a profession.
The Oxford Thesaurus of English only adds to the confusion by listing “interpreter” and “translator” as synonyms.
The Dutch Dikke Van Dale says:
tolk iem. die t.b.v. personen die elkaar niet verstaan het gesprokene mondeling of in gebarentaal overbrengt van de ene taal in de andere
vertaler iem. die vertaalt
The media are struggling with it too. On 22 August, the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant wrote in an article titled “Proces Joran stagneert door ontbreken tolk” (correct) that a legal process was hampered because there was no “officiële vertaler” (incorrect) available. And the book The Translator is really about an interpreter. The title of the Dutch translation (De tolk) is correct by the way, undoubtedly because it was translated by a translator who does know the difference between an interpreter and a translator.
Confused? It’s quite simple actually:
An interpreter (Dutch: tolk) deals with oral speech, whereas a translator (Dutch: vertaler) deals with written text. Some language service providers offer both services, others only offer either interpreting or translation services.
So if you are looking for a language service provider, make sure you look for the right person: if you need someone to interpret the discussions during your meeting, look for an interpreter; if you need someone to translate the minutes of the meeting, look for a translator.
Some clients may ask you to “transcreate” (or “adapt”) a text rather than simply translating it. But what is transcreation?
Transcreation basically means recreating a text for the target audience, in other words “translating” and “recreating” the text. Hence the term “transcreation”. Transcreation is used to make sure that the target text is the same as the source text in every aspect: the message it conveys, style, the images and emotions it evokes and its cultural background. You could say that transcreation is to translation what copywriting is to writing.
One could argue that any translation job is a transcreation job, since a good translation should always try to reflect all these aspects of the source text. This is of course true. But some types of texts require a higher level of transcreation than others. A technical text, for example, will usually not contain many emotions and cultural references and its linguistic style will usually not be very challenging. However, marketing and advertising copy, which is the type of copy to which the term transcreation is usually applied, does contain all these different aspects, making it difficult to create a direct translation. Translating these texts therefore requires a lot of creativity.
In addition to creativity, a transcreator should also have an excellent knowledge of both the source language and the target language, a thorough knowledge of cultural backgrounds and be familiar with the product being advertised and be able to write about it enthusiastically. In addition, it certainly helps if the transcreator can handle stress and is flexible, since the advertising world is a fast-paced world and deadlines and source texts tend to change frequently.
Types of texts
Types of texts offered for transcreation vary from websites, brochures and TV and radio commercials aimed at end clients, to posters and flyers for resellers. They could be about any consumer product: digital cameras, airlines, food and drink, clothing and shoes, and financial products. Transcreators are often required to deliver two or three alternative translations, especially for taglines, and a back translation, to help the end client, who typically does not understand the target language, get an idea of what the translated text sounds like. Transcreators are also expected to provide cultural advice: they should tell the end client when a specific translation or image does not work for the target audience.
What makes transcreation difficult?
In addition to the difficulties posed by creating a target text containing all the aspects of the source text (message, style, images and emotions, cultural background), marketing and advertising copy often poses other difficulties for the transcreator as well. Taglines, for example, often contain puns or references to imagery used by the company. They tend to be incorporated in a logo or image, with limited space and a fixed layout for the text. In addition, they are often used for multiple target groups: not just consumers, but also resellers and stakeholders, which means the text should appeal to all of them.
Rates are always a hot issue among translators, especially low rates offered by clients. Some translators are tempted to accept these low rates or to lower their rates just to get work. However, there is no excuse to accept low rates.
“If my rates are too high, I won’t be able to find any clients”
If you raise your rates, there will always be clients who will find them too high and who won’t hire you. But do you really want to work for clients who underpay you for a job that requires specialised skills? There are plenty of clients out there who know what it takes to create a professional translation and who are prepared to pay a decent rate for quality. There are even clients who will not work with translators offering low rates, because they don’t trust “cheap translations”. If you offer quality translations, you will be able to find quality clients who are willing to pay for what you have to offer. It will take time and effort, but that’s all part of running a business.
“I only see job offers on the internet offering low rates”
There always have been, and always will be, clients who are only interested in making a quick profit and they won’t go away, not as long as there are translators who are prepared to work for these low rates. If you are serious about your business and you are able to offer quality translations, you don’t want to work with these clients. And you don’t have to, because there are plenty of serious clients out there who are willing to pay for quality. It just takes more effort to find them, or have them find you. Make sure you market yourself professionally, provide samples of your work and be active on the internet and/or in networks so clients can actually find you. You are in charge of your business, so you set your rates.
“I’ve only just started and am not very experienced yet”
Obviously, more experienced translators can ask higher rates than less experienced translators. Be careful, however, not to charge rates that are too low when you are just starting, because it will be very difficult to raise those rates to a decent level once you have gained some experience. If you start too low, you will most probably lose most of your current clients and you will have to find new clients, which means you will basically have to start all over again.
“A client asked me to lower my rate in exchange for a high volume of work”
Whether you are working on a 1500-word job or a 15,000-word job, the average number of words you translate per hour will remain roughly the same. So why should you be paid less for a big job? In addition, taking on a big job also means you will have to turn down other jobs and may lose (potential) clients. So why should you settle for less during the whole time you are working on this big job?
“I don’t need to earn that much, my partner earns enough to pay the bills”
Good for you, but that doesn’t mean that your work is worth less. Besides, there are plenty of translators who do have to earn a living translating. By underselling yourself and your work, you are damaging the profession’s reputation and you are ruining the market for others.
What are the benefits of joining a professional association for translators and interpreters?
The benefits of membership of a professional association depend of course on what the association in question has to offer, but most associations offer the following benefits:
- Representation and promotion of interests of translators and interpreters
Many professional associations take part in discussions about the translation and interpreting profession and are involved whenever new rules and regulations affecting the profession are being developed.
- Information about new developments in the business
Most associations publish their own newsletter or bulletin with information about whatever is of interest to their members: new rules and regulations, information about and reviews of software and books, articles on how to market your services, interviews with fellow translators, etc.
- Continuing education
Professional associations often organise workshops and/or conferences on subjects which are important for their members, allowing them to improve their language and business skills and to keep up to date with the latest developments in the business.
- Networking with other translators and interpreters
Membership of a professional association gives you an opportunity to meet fellow translators and interpreters, either at meetings of local chapters or at workshops or conferences organised by the association.
- Professional services
Many professional associations offer professional services such as model terms of business, professional insurance, debt collection services and legal advice for free or at a discount and specifically tailored to the translation profession.
- Searchable member directory
Professional associations often have a searchable database of their members, which potential clients can use to find a service provider.
[Thank you Céline Graciet for adding this one]
Can anyone become a member of a professional association?
No, all professional associations have minimum requirements for membership. Some offer different types of membership. For some associations/memberships, sending in copies of credentials and references will suffice, while others require passing an exam or work assessment.
Which professional association should I become a member of?
It is always useful to become a member of a professional association in the country you live and work in, so you can visit their meetings and use any professional services they offer. In addition, it might be useful to join an association in a country of your working language(s), to be able to keep up to date with developments in that country/language and to meet other translators working in the same language.
Where can I find a list of professional associations?
The website of the Fédération Internationale des Traducteurs/International Federation of Translators and Interpreters (FIT), the international umbrella organisation of associations of translators, interpreters and terminologists, contains a list of FIT members all over the world.
Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of misconceptions about translation, most of which basically imply that translation can’t be that difficult and that anyone can translate. Here are some of them, with my response to them.
“I speak a foreign language, so that makes me a translator”
Just because you speak a foreign language, even if you speak it fluently, doesn’t mean you are a good translator. Spoken language is very different from written language, so just because you are able to have a conversation in a certain language, doesn’t mean you are able to write in that language.
“I was raised bilingually, so that makes me a translator”
Being raised bilingually doesn’t automatically make you a translator. There is more to translating than just knowing two languages: you should also be able to translate, ie. convert one language into another in such a way that the translation reads like an original text. There is a difference between being able to understand and use two languages, and being able to translate between them.
“Modern translation tools are so advanced, they can easily replace human translators”
The translation tools currently available are only able to translate a sentence word for word. Since they cannot understand context, they cannot distinguish between different meanings of the same word. In addition, they simply copy the word order of the source language, which often leads to awkward, even unintelligible sentences in the target language, which the translation tool is unable to rewrite. Translation tools can be useful to find out what a text in another language is (roughly) about, but they are as yet unable to create a good, reliable translation.
“I have a text of around 2500 words. Can you get the translation back to me in an hour?”
Most people can’t even type 2500 words in one hour, so translating 2500 words in one hour is out of the question. How many words a professional translator can translate in one hour depends on different factors, such as the type of text (a creative marketing text takes longer to translate than a straightforward manual) and the level of technicality (a text on a highly technical subject with a lot of specific terminology takes longer to translate than a general text without any specific terminology). On average, a professional translator can translate around 250 to 350 words per hour, so it would take 7 to 10 hours to translate a 2500-word text.
“We don’t need to translate our website and marketing materials, all our customers can read English”
Even though these days a lot of people do read English, they often aren’t comfortable enough with the English language to understand all the details and subtleties of the language. As a result, they will be reluctant to buy a product or service which is not offered in their own language. Research shows that even people who speak English confidently still prefer products in their own language.
“We offer advanced dictionary and search tools which will help you create your own translations”
Good (online) dictionary and search tools are extremely useful for translators, because they can save a lot of time in looking up terminology or background information. However, even though correct terminology and a good understanding of the subject matter is very important, it is not enough to create a good translation: you also need excellent translation, language and writing skills to be able to produce a good, correct and readable translation.
“Translation can’t be that difficult, there’s only one possible translation for every text”
Language isn’t an exact science: there never is just one correct answer. Ideas can be phrased in many different ways. Ask ten translators to translate the same sentence and chances are you will get ten different translations which are all correct. Some translations may be more appropriate for the context and the intended target audience than others, which is why it is important to hire a translator who is familiar with the context and target audience.
“What do they teach you at a translation course, do you have to learn all the dictionaries by heart?”
Even if it would be possible to learn all the dictionaries by heart, it’s not very useful for translation, apart maybe from the fact that it will save time because you never have to look up a word again. But knowing the translation of every single word in a specific language doesn’t make you a translator, because translating is more than just translating individual words, it involves translating concepts and images rather than words. This requires a thorough knowledge of the source and target language and, preferably, of the cultural backgrounds of both languages. And this can only be achieved through talent, training and lots and lots of practice.