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Twelve Ways to Enhance Translation Quality

by Danilo Nogueira and Kelli Semolini

There is no such a thing as perfect translation-and even if there were, we could not be sure it would satisfy the average client or critic. But we have been looking for ways to improve the quality of our translations and we would like to share a few of our findings with you. This is not a How to Become a Perfect Translator in 12 Easy Steps sort of thing, but some of the suggestions may make you think-or perhaps smile, who knows.

1. Avoid Rework

Let's begin with trying to do things right the first time. Editing and revising are tricky, treacherous and time-consuming tasks. So, try to translate each phrase as if the translation were to be published on real time. The fewer points go into the "later" box, the smaller the chance they will pass unnoticed during editing and proofreading.

2. Keep a List of Dangerous Words

What are the easily confusable of your target language? Principle and principal? What words can be mistyped? We don't mean words that do not exist and thus will be rejected by the spell checker, we mean legitimate words, such as where and were, both of which are correct, but have different meanings. Keep a list of your "favorite mistakes" and use the search command to see if and when you used them.

3. Run the Spell and Grammar Checker

Always run the spell and grammar checker before editing a text. Before checking spelling and grammar, however, select the entire document, set the language to your target language and make sure the checker is fully active. The information should be somewhere in a tools menu.

Spell and grammar checkers are often ridiculed, because they fail to detect real problems and suggest ludicrous solutions to non-existing problems, but they do find a large number of points that deserve attention and many of the solutions offered are perfectly correct. They do not solve all problems, but save a lot of work.

4. Comply with Target-Language Typography and Punctuation Rules

Different languages have different typographical and punctuation conventions and your translation should comply with target language usage. Far too many of us forget this and impose source-language rules on our target-language text. For instance, we often see Brazilian Portuguese translations where words are capitalized following English rules.

In addition, many of us are simply careless typists or never bothered to learn how to enter text using a computer. For instance, we often find translations...

...where words are separated by more than one space, there are spaces before commas ,but none after( and similar problems with brackets )tabs are used incorrectly and so forth.

This type of text makes life unnecessarily difficult for editors, typesetters, and proofreaders alike. In addition, it leaves an impression of carelessness that does not contribute much to our image.

Don't tell us this is none of your business: you should try to make your translations so good that editor and proofreader do not have to touch them. You cannot, but you should try all the same.

The above should not be construed to mean that you are to become a typesetter. In fact, to paraphrase a well-known dictum, we have an agreement with typesetters: they do not translate, we do not do typesetting. It means that our work should conform to a few basic rules of "typographical hygiene."

5. Never use the "Replace All" Command

This is the most deadly and fatal of all commands. We know it can be undone. But we also know that, as a rule, you only notice you have done something horrible half an hour after applying it and introducing another 100 improvements in the text, and then it is too late for control-zeeing it.

6. Don't Let the Tug of War Spoil your Translation

During translation, source and target language play a game of tug of war, creating an unceasing tension that may enrich our work-or not, depending on how well we can handle it.

And the Winner is: the Source Language!

When the source language wins, we have a piece of translationese, where we can easily see the "print through" of the original.

Sometimes the text is free from grammar errors, but you can see that it is not the real thing. It is correct, but it reads funny. That makes the task of the editor a lot more difficult, because it is impossible to quote grammar rules to prove that the text needs changing, a situation that results in endless mud-slinging matches between translator and editor. In many cases, there is a PM involved who, to make things worse, does not understand a word of the target language.

A good way to determine whether a translation is natural is to read it aloud, but unfortunately we never have time for that. However, you should try to read a paragraph of each job aloud, just to make sure it flows well. You may be in for a surprise.

Ah, don't tell us that you translate technical stuff and that does not need to read natural. With the possible exception of parts lists, every text should read natural in the target language.

And the Winner is: the Target Language!

Natural style, however, should not be conquered at the expense of fidelity. This often is the result of an editing job done without comparing the target against source. An overeager editor often improves a translation away from the original, so to say-a case where the target language wins.

When the target language wins, we have what the French call a belle infidèle—a translation that reads beautifully, but is not true to the original.

The only way to determine whether a translation is true to its original is to compare them, a task neglected by more than one harried editor, or by agencies that, in an attempt to cut costs, ask editors-proofreaders to refer to the original only when needed, as if there were times when double checking translations against the original was not needed.

Most translators make a point of editing their own work, even if it is to be edited later by someone else, which is very good practice. Some of those translators prefer to edit in two steps: first, compare target and source texts, to check fidelity; then read the target text alone, to see if it flows. Others do it in the reverse order: first check for flow, then for fidelity.

Whatever order you chose, stick to it, or you will never finish that job.

7. Know your Cognates, False and Otherwise

If your language pair has cognates, you probably have already been warned against false cognates, otherwise called false friends, those misleading pairs of equal or very similar words that have different meanings, such as eventual, which means one thing in English and quite another thing in Portuguese, to the dismay of more than one wannabe translator.

These admonitions have often led to the paranoid view that you cannot use cognates in a translation. Why not? Eventual has different meanings in English and Portuguese, but notável often is the optimal translation for notable. Of course, using a less-than-optimal translation when there is a better choice at hand results in unnecessary loss of precision.

8. Be Precise

Precision is a great translatorial virtue, but we often look for precision in nouns and verbs, whereas as often as not, precision lies in adjectives and adverbs. Adjectives and adverbs are the "shading words" par excellence, the little words that fine-tune our thoughts. Years ago, a Brazilian publisher entrusted a local college professor with the translation of a science book for the general public. Either because the translator didn't like what he read or for some other reason, although nouns and verbs were always correctly rendered, adjectives and adverbs were almost always translated wrong. A groundbreaking study became merely interesting, an obvious mistake became possible and so forth. The "technical terms," all of them nouns and verbs, were perfect and the publisher was very happy with it, but the translation was very poor.

9. Don't Fall into the Preposition Trap

Funny how many translators still fall into the preposition trap. Most prepositions do not have a life of their own: they are required by a verb or a noun. A good example is of, which is supposed to translate as de in Portuguese. It so happens, however, that to dream of is sonhar com because the verb sonhar (dream) takes the preposition com in Portuguese.

In those cases, you translate the verb or noun and don't give a thought to the preposition in the source language: just use the preposition required in the target language. That is, see verb or noun and the respective preposition as a single unit.

10. Check Headers, Footers, Graphs and Text boxes

We tend to go directly to the main text and forget about headers and footers, where more than one grave error lies in hiding. If the source text is an MS Word document, remember that some graphics will show only in print preview mode. And look for text boxes.

We recently got into very hot water with an agency because we did fail to do this and the document had two tiny text boxes, totaling fewer than ten words. But they were key words and the first thing the final client paid attention to.

11. Run the Spelling and Grammar Checker Once More

Before delivering the job, run the spelling and grammar checker once more, just for safety's sake. We often introduce grammar and spelling errors while editing and this is the last chance to get rid of them.

12. Have a Second Pair of Eyes Check your Work

If you are working for an agency, there is a very good chance your work will be checked by an editor. If you are working for a final client, you should arrange for someone else to read your job. Even if you are very good, a second pair of eyes will find the odd mistake and make the odd improvement that can make a great difference. But be prepared: no translator is a hero to his editor.

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