Why good translators ask questions

Question markCuriosity has always been a virtue when it comes to translation. After all, it’s a profession that attracts many a talented linguist with an inquisitive mind motivated by the daily challenge of finding le mot juste. To find the right words for each translation, translators work with a range of terminology resources, such as dictionaries, glossaries and text corpora. They also research the subject matter of the texts they translate through various channels such as the Internet, books and journals. Yet, despite these resources, there are times when a translator might need to ask you questions about the text that he or she is translating for you – and that’s usually a good sign. Here are a few reasons why.

It could be that the text you are having translated contains terminology unique to your organisation. Acronyms are a case in point. Common acronyms, such as GDP, FIFO and IPO, rarely present a problem. But, if your text contains acronyms that are used exclusively within your organisation, chances are that the translator will need to ask what these mean in order to come up with appropriate ways of translating them.

If your organisation operates in a niche area, it’s likely there will be a number of highly specialised terms and concepts relating to your work. Before deciding how best to translate these for the benefit of your target readership, the translator might need to clarify the exact meaning of certain terms and concepts in the context of your organisation’s activities. By taking this approach, potential misunderstandings can be avoided.

Sometimes, a translator will also want to get in touch if there are various viable options for translating a key term. For example, the German term “Fracht” can be translated into English as “freight” or “cargo”. When handling, say, the translation of a corporate brochure for a logistics company, a translator might want to ask which option the client prefers.

Another possibility could be that the text to be translated appears to contain a mistake, such as a typo or a missing word. Where this is the case, a reliable translator will check what the author actually meant to say rather than hazard a guess in the translation.

In a nutshell, a good translator will carefully read your text, and, if something isn’t clear, he or she will ask. Translators earn their living by communicating messages from one language into another as effectively as possible but, ultimately, no one knows what you want to say better than you do. That’s why it’s definitely worth making yourself – or, if necessary, someone else in your organisation – available to answer questions from the translator while your text is being translated. By asking questions to clarify any relevant points in your text, a translator can ensure that the message conveyed by the translation is precisely the message you want to get across to your audience.

Curious to learn more about the virtues of asking – and answering – questions? Ask us!


How MOOCs can benefit translators – and translation buyers too

Academic capIf asked which attributes are typically expected of translators, most people would probably say that outstanding language skills are a must. And, of course, they’d be right – professional translators dedicate many years to perfecting their proficiency in at least one foreign language as well as their command of their native language. But translators also have to be knowledgeable about the various subjects associated with the texts they translate. This means they need excellent research skills and a willingness to learn new material relevant to their areas of specialisation. It’s precisely because of this occupational need to combine linguistic prowess and subject-specific knowledge that MOOCs, the latest development in e-learning, are such a welcome opportunity for translators. But what is a MOOC?

MOOCs – or massive open online courses – enable anyone with an internet connection to take courses in subjects ranging from computing to medicine. Usually free of charge, MOOCs are offered by universities from all over the world, including institutions such as Harvard, Yale, MIT and Stanford. The courses are delivered in conjunction with external providers such as Coursera, edX, iversity and FutureLearn. This is great news for translators looking to keep up to date with the latest developments in their areas of specialisation or even develop new specialisms through independent study. For example, a translator who focuses on IT or software localisation might choose to take, say, a software engineering course on edX to become more familiar with the latest thinking in that field. The even better news for translators is that it’s often possible to find a number of MOOCs on a particular subject in different languages. For example, Coursera currently has a French MOOC on finance by HEC Paris and another course on finance by the University of Michigan in English.

The exponential growth in the number of MOOCs over the past few years has given translators a great way of keeping up with the latest ideas and terminology in their areas of specialisation. What’s more, they can do so at minimal cost and in multiple languages too. But MOOCs don’t just benefit translators. Translation buyers can now look forward to having their texts translated by professional linguists who, at the click of a mouse, can access the latest thinking in a huge variety of subject areas with tuition provided by experts from the world’s leading universities.

Have you ever taken a MOOC? Tell us about your experience!

How do you know if a translation is accurate?

RightYou’ve sent a text off for translation, received the final version back from the translator or agency, so it’s just time to hit publish or print, and then to sit back and wait for responses to roll in…

At this point, if you’re unlucky, the first indication that something has gone wrong may be when a reader points out a fault with the translated text. It shouldn’t ever have to come to this, so here are a few options for checking the accuracy of your translated text.

1) Obvious as it sounds, the first thing you should do is find a native speaker (if you aren’t one yourself) to read through the text carefully. Not all translation mistakes are mistranslations; it can be the case that a translated text is technically accurate, but sounds odd, or reads clumsily. This is particularly true for spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, so don’t forget to take a good hard look at translated texts.

2) Proofreading by another translator will weed out errors, if there are any. Yestrans offers proofreading services as an optional extra or standalone service; get in touch if you’d like a quote. Our basic service always includes thorough proofreading by the translator, but we would always recommend proofreading by a second translator for the best quality.

3) Back-translation is the process of reworking an already translated document, back into the original language. Obviously this method could effectively double your costs (in time as well as money!), but in some situations it is the right way to go. The output is never likely to be identical to the original document, but the meaning should clearly be the same. If you find yourself in need of a back-translation, let us know.

Have you had any amusing or awful experiences with mistakes in translation? What do you wish you had done differently?

Why lateral – rather than literal – thinking is the key to translating marketing communications

cupcake with cherryIf you want your marketing messages to have the same kind of impact on your foreign audience as they do in your domestic market, you can rarely rely on a straightforward literal translation. Say you use the phrase “the icing on the cake” to tell customers about that extra-special finishing touch you’ve added to your product or service. If you want to translate the same phrase unambiguously into French, however, it’s worth bearing in mind that in France it seems to be the cherry – and not so much the icing – that counts. The French tend to say “la cerise sur le gâteau”, which literally means “the cherry on the cake”, to describe that additional special something. Moving away from the culinary setting altogether, a German might use the phrase “das Tüpfelchen auf dem i” (“the dot on the [letter] i”) when referring to the same thing.

What these examples show is that different languages often have their own distinctive ways of expressing the same idea. If you want to communicate clearly and effectively in a foreign language, you need to be aware of these kinds of differences – and a literal translation in many cases just won’t do.

When adapting the tone of voice of your marketing communication to suit your target audience, it’s vital that the translation of your message takes into account the linguistic and cultural norms of the foreign market. To take one example – it’s quite normal for German advertising copy to encourage readers to “convince themselves” of the merits of a given product or service with a phrase such as “überzeugen Sie sich selbst davon!” Yet, such a command – if translated literally into English as “convince yourself about it!” – might well elicit an indignant response from, say, British or American readers. A freer translation along the lines of “why not see for yourself…” would be more in keeping with Anglo-American cultural expectations. A good translator will be aware of these kinds of intercultural differences and think laterally – rather than literally – to get your message across in the way you intended.

What other factors do you consider important when it comes to getting across your marketing message internationally?

Subtitling – not as easy as it looks

Language students are often told to watch lots of foreign films to help them pick up new words and phrases. During my degree I followed this advice, and started noticing that what I could hear was different from what I could see in the subtitles. I told my friends “That’s not right, it should have been…” or “They missed half a phrase there!” – after all, if a student just starting out could see things had been missed out of the subtitles, they must be rubbish, right?

Well, not quite.remote-control-1-683635-m

Turns out, subtitling is harder than it looks.

The nature of subtitles means that they have to be condensed. Picture a scene where five people are raging and yelling at each other at high speeds. Somehow, in two lines of subtitle every 4-6 seconds, the subtitler needs to give an impression of the emotions and standpoint of each character. It’s no wonder that there often isn’t room for the specific details of what was said.

Subtitling is a fine and complex art – especially when you take into account all of the very specific rules that have to be applied to make the subtitles legible, comprehensible and useful.

While subtitlers might often wish for a few more characters per line, the rules are there for a reason – so that viewers have time to watch the film, rather than just read it! So some information has to go – the key question is what. Which bits are more important than others? How can a film maker retain control of what foreign-language viewers experience? These are important questions, especially when it comes to effectively communicating a film-maker’s message to an international audience.

What do you think subtitlers’ priorities should be?

Common misconceptions about translators and translations

1. Translators and interpreters – is there a difference?

The answer to this is a resounding yes! There is a simple difference: translators deal with written texts; interpreters deal with the spoken word. The two professions are completely different, although you will find some people who are qualified and talented enough to do both.

2. Translators should know what they’re doing and shouldn’t need a dictionary.

Pile of dictionaries

Although we at Yestrans would love to tell you that we know everything there is to know about every single word in the languages we use, we don’t. It’s just not possible. Any given word has a variety of potential meanings, and each individual uses language in their own way. A combination of dictionaries, research and a bit of creative writing enable us to unlock the intended message in a text and communicate it fluently and effectively in the target language.

3. If you’re bilingual, you’re automatically a good translator.

This just isn’t true. Although there are many bilingual professionals, there’s more to translation than speaking more than one language. Understanding the differences between and idiosyncrasies of individual cultures is pretty complex, and you don’t want to accidentally say the wrong thing. Some translators will have studied to qualify as a translator for five years – and not without reason!

4. A translation is a translation – if my colleague says it’s wrong then it’s wrong

The truth is, the lines between right and wrong in translation are very much blurred. The key to being a successful translator is making your choices and style meet the client’s expectations. Every translator will have a slightly different style and a text will never be translated the same way twice. Just like every speaker of a language speaks differently, one translator will not produce a text that is identical to his/her colleague’s. Scholars in translation studies have written reams about this. If you’re interested in finding out more, Google “ideology in translation”.

5. Machine translation will make translators redundant

Translation requires a great deal of cultural understanding and contextual thinking – something that machines are unable to do. A translator will constantly be thinking about, for example, whether their work is in the correct register; whether it will appeal to the text’s target audience; how to deal with cultural issues that arise in the text or terms, places, phrases or events that the source text’s target audience will know but the target text’s target audience may not (e.g. Tag der Deutschen Einheit [German Unity Day] for a British audience or Pancake Day for a German audience); and how to respond to the demands of each individual text.

Are there any other things you have been surprised to find out about translators?


Are you offending your foreign clients without knowing?

Sometimes it’s hard to know how you come across to your clients. When you’re being friendly and informal, are you building a close rapport or coming across as unprofessional? Is your use of technical terms showing that you know your business well or baffling them?Woman looking offended

We rely on all sorts of clues to work out what impression we’re giving. Their behaviour, body language, and the tone they use with us all help. The problem becomes more difficult, though, when you’re communicating with someone hundreds or thousands of miles away, and who speaks a different language. This can be the case even if you know the other language, or if the person you are contacting is able to communicate with you in English.

Written communication is also an extra barrier – your broken German might be met with an encouraging smile or a puzzled look face-to-face, but it’s hard to tell how someone is reacting to your documents (which are also a lot more permanent).

As translators, we’re trained to decode clues from one language and find the right way to make sure they are still there in another language. Here are some of our tips to make sure you are coming across the way you want to with your foreign clients:

  • Politeness forms – different languages have different ways of showing that you are being polite. English uses “please” and “thank you” a lot more than German, for example – you need to gauge how much you use them to check you aren’t coming across as either grovelling or rude.
  • Set ways of saying things – “I beg you, sir, to accept my finest greetings” might not roll off the tongue in English, but that’s how most formal French letters end. Check that you know the set-pieces for the type of document you are sending, or it will look sloppy and like you don’t care much about the client.
  • Choice of words – sometimes a word exists in both languages, and even means the same sort of thing, but can give off a different impression. When reading a French email, it’s easy to see “altération”, find out that it means “alteration”, and think you’ve cracked it. However, French uses –tion words a lot more often in everyday conversation than English, so it’s important to understand that they might mean “change” – they aren’t being as formal as you might think, something to bear in mind when writing your reply.

If you don’t know how you are coming across, you are negotiating, selling and building relationships in the dark – it’s always worth taking the time to make sure you are communicating effectively.

Have you ever made a language faux pas with a client, or do you have any other tips on getting cross-cultural communication right?