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In my experience, one of the most common misconceptions about translation is that knowing a foreign language is all it takes to be a good translator. Especially in the Netherlands, where everyone learns English in school and more and more university courses are taught in English, a lot of people seem to think that this is all it takes to become a translator. “I always read books in English,” they will say. Sounds convincing, right?


First of all, “knowing a foreign language” or “being fluent in a language” is very subjective. A lot of people claim to be fluent in English because they are able to read books in English or to have a successful conversation in English. But you don’t have to have a perfect grasp of the English language to read a book, as long as you get the gist of the story. And you don’t have to speak English fluently to have a successful conversation, as long as you understand each other. When it comes to translation, however, this is not enough. To be able to translate a text, you have to understand it perfectly: not just every word but every nuance in meaning, every idiom, every cultural reference, even regional slang (if you translate literature).

And that is not all.

The next step is to transfer the original message with all its nuances and references into your own mother tongue. That is a skill in itself and doesn’t come “automatically” with learning a foreign language. Even people who have been raised bilingually and speak and understand two languages perfectly aren’t necessarily good translators, because they may lack this specific skill: how to describe the message from one language in the words of another language.

That is quite a lot to ask from a translator, isn’t it? But we are not there just yet.

Just putting a message into words (which is often already hard enough!) is not good enough when you are translating, especially when it comes to more creative texts, such as advertising material or literature. The text needs to be attractive too; after all, you want people to read it. If you are going to advertise a product, you don’t want your potential clients to get bored after a few sentences and forget about your product altogether. And people who buy a novel usually want more than just a story, they want to be dragged into that story. To achieve that, a translator needs excellent writing skills to be able to produce a translation that is just as compelling as the original, using the right style and tone of voice for the intended target audience.

There are of course other skills a good translator should have, such as specialising in a specific subject area, but in my opinion these are the three basic skills: an excellent command of the foreign language, the ability to translate the message into your own language, and excellent writing skills.

Who knew translation could be so complicated?

I often hear people say: “I only work with creative texts, so CAT tools don’t work for me”. I can see where this is coming from: creative texts don’t tend to have a lot of repetition. But CAT tools are so much more these days than just databases that help with repetitive texts. Also, “creative” doesn’t always mean “no repetition”.

Another reason I sometimes hear is: “I can’t work in segments, it limits my creativity”. A perfectly valid reason, but one that doesn’t always apply, as I will explain below.

I translate a lot of creative advertising material, but I have always used my CAT tool if at all possible. Here’s why.

Not all creative texts are the same. Some will contain no repetition at all. But advertising material does tend to be repetitive: often, you have to translate texts for different media (website, social media, etc.) which may not be 100% the same, but usually contain close enough matches to warrant using a CAT tool. Also, advertising campaigns tend to be used for a while, sometimes months, sometimes even years. This means there will be updates, which can contain repetitions. And even if there are no exact repetitions, they need to be translated in the same style and with the same terminology, so having a translation memory and a terminology base for reference is really useful.

File formats
The texts I have to translate are often delivered in Excel, because it’s easier for the project manager to have all the different languages in one file. And because it’s easier for the DTP person who has to copy and paste all these texts in strange languages into the website or poster or whatever the final format is. But it’s not exactly easy for the translator, who has to find their target language among all these different languages (and columns with instructions). And then has to translate them in an environment (Excel) which wasn’t made for word processing. That’s where a CAT tool comes in handy: you can simply import just the columns/cells you need to translate, use the spell check, character count and quality assurance features of your CAT tool and export your translation back into the Excel file.

The same applies to PowerPoint presentations: no need to click on each separate text box, just import the whole file into your CAT tool (including slide notes, if these have to be translated as well), finish your translation and export it. The only thing you will have to do in PowerPoint is check whether the texts fit into their respective text boxes. Although there is even a trick to make that easier: if you keep an eye on the character count while working in your CAT tool and, where possible, make sure it doesn’t exceed that of the source text, you probably won’t need to fix a lot of text boxes.

A CAT tool forces you to translate in segments, which not everyone likes. But because of the way advertising source texts are often delivered (in cells and columns in an Excel file), you are basically already working in segments, just like in a CAT tool. It’s not ideal, but that’s the way it works, so you might as well do it in a CAT tool and use the advantages of the tool as a bonus.

Changes in the source text
Even if there are no other advantages such as repetition or impractical file formats, I still tend to use my CAT tool. For a very simple reason: ever-changing source texts. This tends to happen quite regularly with advertising texts: you either receive the source text before it is final, so you “can already start working on it”, or the client decides to make some changes after you have started or even after you have already delivered the translation. Instead of having to go through the updated text (fingers crossed they used Track Changes!), you simply import the new version in your CAT tool and you can easily see what has changed and update your previously translated segments to incorporate the changes.

Finally, I use my CAT tool because it offers me a backup of my translations. It doesn’t happen that often that files get corrupted, but if you believe in Murphy’s Law (I do!), you’ll know that it will happen if you haven’t got a backup and you’ve almost reached the deadline: suddenly, for inexplicable reasons, your file no longer opens. If you used a CAT tool, you can simply reimport the original file and populate it with the translations stored in your translation memory. By the way, this is the reason why I always make sure I keep the original file from the client (either as a copy on my hard drive or in my mailbox), so I can always start from scratch if Mr Murphy decides to interfere.

Online CAT tools
Even if these reasons don’t convince you to explore the use of technology for (some) creative texts, you still might want to start getting used to it. Because clients are discovering it and are more and more requiring translators to work in their own (usually online) tools. And these are a lot easier to work with if you are already familiar with how a CAT tool works.

Of course, everyone is free to choose their tools, or no tools, for that matter. I just wanted to show that creative texts and CAT tools are not mutually exclusive. It may not always be a perfect combination, but in my experience the advantages of technology far outweigh the disadvantages.

Read my article How to Spice Up Your Translation in the latest issue of the ATA Chronicle.

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.

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.

Required skills
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.

About this weblog

Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture
-Anthony Burgess

To know another’s language and not his culture is a very good way to make a fluent fool of yourself
-Winston Brembeck


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