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Read my article Translation as an Art: How to Get Your Work in a Museum in the latest issue of the ATA Chronicle.

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 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.

Listen to the interview.

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:

  • Terminology
    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.
  • Consistency
    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.
  • Formatting
    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.
  • Backup
    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.
  • Planning
    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.
  • Updates
    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, 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
synoniem: vertaler
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.

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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