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How did you become a better translator?
Thread poster: Henry Dotterer
Henry Dotterer
Local time: 11:50
Jul 1, 2003

A simple question to all: what have you done, or what experiences have you had, that have made you a better translator?

Example: in my case, translating from Japanese to English, I worked beside a very particular gentleman who was not a native speaker of English, but who had outstanding book knowledge of the language--and a great collection of books to match. He challenged my translations frequently, always with multiple references. Often, the target of his challenges was my written English.

Being forced to reconcile my native English with textbook English was a great exercise, because it forced me to develop a defense of my translations before delivery.

In the US, we have classes on "defensive driving". This was my class in "defensive translation."

What are other ways in which people can improve as translators? Know a good book? What about your degree program? Did you study for accreditation?

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xxxCHENOUMI  Identity Verified
English to French
+ ...
The Masters of Arts degree program at the Monterey Institute Jul 1, 2003

My best experience was when I was admitted into the Masters of Art degree Program of the Monterey Institute - the toughest and the best - and was professionally trained there. This was the most excruciating experience ever. Not only because the program was very demanding, but also because it challenged our knowledge as native speakers all the way. It was very eye-opening to me because it really showed me the hard way that we do not always know the intricacies of our own language.

Part of the curriculum was to also translate into our "B" language. Spanish happened to be my "B" language at the time, meaning my closest or near-native language. I had to make a tough choice, because I could only do my assignments and translation work into my native French from English.
It was really, really a monumental experience. I finally opted to work from a 'C' and fourth language --English-- into 'French'.
In my teachers' own words: "I did amazingly well..."

I thought it would be impossible for me to perform in a 'C' language, but the A's that I got for my grades boosted my self-confidence. I am glad to report that English has now become my second 'B' language. I feel a great sense of accomplishment.

In the MIIS program I learned two major lessons: There is no such thing as a 'perfect' translation and I learned to appreciate the valuable input of non-native speakers. I recall that when I was doing FR>EN translations, my American classmates - teachers included - were mesmerized by my renditions and sometimes would wonder 'How did I come up with such or such formulation?' Similarly, I was amazed by some of their performances in the EN>FR that were truly exceptional...

Books, accreditation and constant learning are definitely pluses that we must keep as our best assets. Besides, seminars and professional affiliations should keep us apprised of the new trends in this challenging profession. An ungrateful and ever-challenging profession that can bring us nonetheless some enormous thrills...and the satisfaction of a work well done!

I am a relatively young freelance translator, but the experience that I have acquired at MIIS and my freelance work the past 3 years have been remarkable and very useful.


[Edited at 2003-07-02 06:43]

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xxxCHENOUMI  Identity Verified
English to French
+ ...
MIIS also has a fabulous Japanese Program Jul 1, 2003


I forgot to mention that my school also offers a T&I program in Japanese.
There is an option to make an advanced entry exam and complete the course in 1 year.
instead of two!...

MIIS library is one of the richest for T&I courses, and the simul labs are fully equipped and operational.


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Andres Pacheco  Identity Verified
Local time: 12:50
Member (2003)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Three activities: Jul 1, 2003

Reading, reading and reading.

I think that's what has worked for me. For one thing, we are language professionals, and as such, we are going to perform a better job if we are deeply interested in the written word.

Besides that, taking undergraduate and graduate courses constantly also helps me a lot.

Working with other people and sharing experiences is something that has helped me and has made me enjoy my job better.



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Ursula Peter-Czichi  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 11:50
German to English
+ ...
Getting focussed on the interests and perceptions of others. Jul 1, 2003

I used to have an old computer program called "Key GrammerChecker". It is no longer compatible with any operating system. However, I still activate it in my mind.
One day a good friend and former colleague asked me for help with a "corporate self-evaluation". I knew her work and how well she did it. Naturally, I put my heart and soul into writing that evaluation. Then I used my grammar tool on the text. I could hardly find the original between negative comments. To this day I will not disclose the score for my document under any circumstances.
My first reaction: "stupid machine - it will remove all style".

There is something about scores. Scores demand to be improved! I started not to work on the document but to "work on the score". I brought it to a score of 98%, a fraction of a percent at a time. Then I stopped to look at the result: The difference was amazing! The evaluation was much better than anything I had ever written before in any language.

This program cured me of the huffy opinion that "good writing just comes naturally" and the wrong idea that I should "impress people with a knowledge of language".
Ever once in a while in a big hurry to deliver a translation, I will remember that first score. This keeps my focus on the interests of readers and clients and the simple fact that there is much more to language than words and correct grammar.

I still remember that first score, but I won't tell!

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Jack Doughty  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 16:50
Member (2000)
Russian to English
+ ...
Things that helped me Jul 1, 2003

I recently posted in another forum topic
and part of it seems relevant here:
I started from a three-year apprenticeship and some practical experience on aircraft engines, so started only doing that subject, then broadened out into mechanical engineering, automotive engineering, electrical engineering etc.
I also learned a lot about the generally accepted style for academic papers when for two years I subcontracted some translations from a Professor of Physics at Oxford, who corrected my work and returned it to me to show me where my efforts could be improved. (I also learned something about fluid state physics in the course of this.) I never used to accept offers of work in the medical field, but then having refused to do such a job for a client, he came back and asked again, this time suggesting I could cooperate directly by email with the doctors who had commissioned the translation. I did so, and it worked out well. So I learned something in this field, and though I still reject most medical work as outside my competence, I do at least have a look at what is on offer and sometimes accept something I feel I can cope with. (But anything in a doctor's handwriting is still rejected out of hand!)

[Edited at 2003-07-01 14:57]

[Edited at 2003-07-01 18:50]

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Pablo Cañamares  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:50
Russian to Spanish
+ ...
Lopez Sensei Jul 1, 2003

I had a sensei on translation

Gabriel Lopez Guix, who is a Superb translator. He is, I believe, the official translator of Tom Wolfe into Spanish.

Apart from translating, he teaches translation in the UAB, one of the universities on Barcelona. He was my teacher for two years, and I think I learnt plenty. The skill I developed most, but also the one which is still weakest in me, is documenting. I still have to habit myself to do much more documenting than I do (and don't ask how much of it I did when I started studying).

His classes are very practical, you translate at home and discuss the translation in class, so it is also a form of "defensive translation".

The other way of learning that I used and that Lopez-sensei adviced to me was, as It has been said, reading a lot.

As a final comment and homage to my translation sensei, I'll quote a japanese saying: "A father gives life, but it is the master who makes a man out of you".

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Parrot  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:50
Member (2002)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Continually Jul 1, 2003

What else can I say? I started in the profession cold turkey. My bosses insisted that the whole staff undergo continuous training. I took the courses (language, translation, interpretation, cultural immersion, Master's, etc.) and went everywhere I could go for residence. I even did the anthropology - and I'm not yet finished. They always told me there was no end to this, and I've accepted that. Every year I go back to at least one of my source language countries to refresh. And shop for dictionaries. Never rest on your laurels. Lastly, see to it that your income allows for this kind of reinvestment. It's not just a JOB, you see. It's a way of growing.

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Eva Blanar  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:50
English to Hungarian
+ ...
Proofreading Jul 1, 2003

I never thought I would become a translator: the only reason for that is that I have got to repay a mortgage loan, "calibrated" to my previous salary - and translation is an easy job if you fully understand what the source text is about.

Accordingly, when translating, I always just sat down and wrote the equivalent of the text in the target language, without even thinking about it. I understood only due to a huge proofreading job (several thousand words, done by several translators) that we ought to be very *conscious* in picking the proper synonyms, in applying the proper word order - and I think I am doing a better (translation) job since that time.

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murat karahan  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:50
English to Turkish
+ ...
Specialization and senseis Jul 1, 2003

While studying at an English teaching department a friend asked me to do a translation for her. Just 4 pages of architectural translation was enough to change all my future plans and move on to a T&I department. I've started working at the end of the first semester and was lucky enough to work in environments with plenty of feedback. I believe that no matter how experienced you are if you don't get feedback, be it negative or positive, you'll lose your edge.
Sürer Çine, a fine gentleman, may he rest in peace, has shown me the finesse of the craft of subtitling. It wasn't that difficult to shift from dubbing translation to subtitling. And I'm still in that field for over a decade and have done almost nothing else. If you keep doing what you're best at and not mediocre or worse then you'll stand out from the crowd. I believe that's what specialization is all about. The best knowledge for me is to know what I can't do and don't know. I never hesitate to reject projects since I cannot afford to make a bad translation, it's a sticky stuff.
I don't believe that translation can be taught yet I teach it In my opinion a degree program could only sharpen skills and increase the awareness which would normally take a lot of time in the field. It helps you to defend your translations more scientifically
In documentary translations it helps a lot if you're a generalist. A good documentary translator in my opinion watches a lot of documentaries which should be equal to "reading, reading, reading".
Just one more thing, if you earn what you think you deserve, it helps to love the job and become better.

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Susana Galilea  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 10:50
English to Spanish
+ ...
10 years working exclusively as a reviewer Jul 1, 2003

I must admit I came to this profession almost in spite of myself, even though I studied the trade and earned a translation diploma from the University of Barcelona. Fancy diploma notwithstanding, in younger years my focus was in pursuing my aspirations as a post-modern dancer...and you thought making a living as a translator is tough

Eventually, I found myself taking a test at the NYC offices of a major translation agency. The test in question was an editing/proofreading test, and I made a glaring mistake in a result, I will never again forget the rule for accenting adverbs finished in "-mente"! I will also never forget the words of the manager, who hired me because I did not get defensive when she pointed out the mistake to me, and instead I admitted I had long forgotten that rule. Being straightforward got me my first job, and I have kept that in mind ever since.

I learned all my editing skills on the job, by asking more experienced peers, questioning everything, and finding out as much as I could for myself...way before Google became a household name! I remember once phoning my grandma in Spain to inquire about bedding products! Diploma or no diploma, I feel I learned the art of translation by finding my way through other people's work.

The other major shift for me, as an editor in New York City, was letting go of the concept of what constitutes "proper" Castilian, and diving wholeheartedly into the universe of regionalisms, dialects, idioms, taboo words, and even Spanglish. To this day I find myself defending the vitality and resilience of the Spanish language whenever I come across a stubborn "purist". As far as I see it, it is all a matter of context and register, and the more of those you are aware of, the better off you are!



[Edited at 2003-07-05 21:11]

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Nikki Scott-Despaigne  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:50
French to English
Specialisation, keeping up to date, questioning yourself and others Jul 2, 2003

Specialisation, keeping up to date, questioning yourself and others.

When I say questioning yourself, I mean bringing yourself into question. And at all levels. I try to question my approach, working methods and choice of terms in particular contexts. Observing others' approach and methods is also extremely helpful. This is largely a sub-conscious process but there are times that I am one hundred percent aware that I am doing it.

All in all, apart from the obvious "not just a job" approach, bringing oneself into question - and knowing when to insist upon a choice being the right one, is as much part of growing in the widest sense of the term as it is in reaching a degree of professional maturity. Wanting to continue to grow is perhpas a sign that one has made the right choice.

[Edited at 2003-07-02 07:09]

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Palko Agi  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:50
English to Hungarian
+ ...
criticizing others - and myself :) Jul 3, 2003

I mostly translate literature. What helped me a lot: reading books in original and in translation and compare them (my favourite is Agatha Christie - her novels are almost all translated into Hungarian, but not too well). The worst is when you read something in your own language and recognize the original language structures.
Then I started to reread my own translations, and found a lot of things that I would translate differently, much better now.
I also try to widen my Hungarian vocabulary, collecting words and expressions from everything I read.
Finally, ProZ colleagues has helped me a lot, too!!! Thanks!

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Edward Vreeburg  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:50
Member (2008)
English to Dutch
+ ...
working in the field and living in the country Jul 6, 2003

First of all I am one of those translators who became a translation professional later in life..
I worked in the field (IT, in my case) for 13 years in different companies, jobs and countries...
So, I know what I'm talking about technically...

It also helps it you have spend some time (or actually a lot of time) in the country of your source language (assuming you translate into your mother tongue)...
If you do not have that choice hanging out with expats from that country on a regular basis (or being married to one) also helps.

and of course : Experience (preferably bad)

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Odette Grille  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:50
English to French
+ ...
Time and... Jul 13, 2003

One of my linguistics profs told us: "There is no such thing as an untranslatable text" This sentence has remained in my mind over thirty years. It's challenging.

Reading, of course... When I translate a novel, for example, I start by reading the novel...but not all of it. (I need some suspense to keep me going till the end as a book may take five months to translate and we all know that there comes a time when we wish we were finished). I read enough to get the mood. Then, I start collecting and reading books written in the style that I want to (try) and reproduce, and, of course, books on the subject(s) mentioned in the novel (sometimes, it helps to understand jokes, for example). I never start working before a week after reading the book. The first week is reading on the side, enough so that I feel impregnated with the style I want. Also, what I have read of the novel "sinks in". Then I start (I dictate in a microphone, so I can play out my text and hearing it is a good way to feel something is wrong. Also, my typist enjoys it more)
I work very eartly in the morning (4-5h30) when everything is quiet and I still feel a little dreamy.
Stress freezes my mind, that is why I hate tight deadlines. I rarely work more than 4 hours (so it does not feel like work), that is an average of 4000 words (talking is much quicker than typing).

I was an interpreter for some years and really enjoyed it. I sometime spent 2 hours translating alone in the booth. That was a demanding training but very exhilarating.

I work with excellent proofreaders and my typist is himself a writer who has published three novels. I learn from him, still.

Basically, I try to make the work remain as pleasant as possible, then I don't even have to motivate myself otherwise to want to do my best.

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