Revise that!


I must have been feeling upbeat yesterday. Why else would I accept a couple of assignments involving the revision of translations from German into English?

There is nothing unusual about this. The last revision I did for this particular agency was a mere five days ago.  This would suggest that I cannot possibly have forgotten what the experience is like.

Perhaps I thought it would make a nice change from translating? I do have other work on the go, so one option was to decline the work on that basis. Perhaps I thought I could defy the phases of the moon and remain calm, focused and precise throughout the assignment? What was I thinking?

The translation was not very bad. Rather, it was not good at all. Some bits were passable. And so they should be, for these are the bits that the average professional translator translates upside down and blindfold with his or her left pinkie. It sounded wrong almost at every turn. It did not hang together. It sounded like a translation. Shudder!

When I realised that the central character in this text was being reported as having, “graduated from a diploma in something-or-other” (vagueness to protect everyone, really), I felt compelled to remove my spectacles, furrow my brow with additional assistance from my thumb and forefinger, get up from my desk, open the front door and look across at the hill in Psalm 121 fashion.  For ease of reference,

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help.

My help cometh from the Lord which hath made heaven and earth.”

I returned to my desk thus fortified. I reminded myself of an important aspect of this type of revision: the principle of minimum intervention. With this in mind I read through the entire text trying to see what the overall approach and style of this translator was, while simultaneously checking the source text for accuracy.

The only “interventions” I made were those handy little spaces one can put at the end of a Trados segment so that it renders the whole segment “rejected”. In the old days, yellow highlighter in Word did the job. I was proud of myself that I did not alter a single thing until I had read the whole piece.

The chief problem was that the translator had not tried to see the overall picture. It seemed that the translator had not thought about the purpose of the text at all. If he or she had, I feel certain that a slightly better-crafted translation would have been delivered.

As I picked my way through one wince-inducing phrase after the other, I became convinced that the translator did indeed have a mother tongue, but that it was not English as she is spoke.

I do not normally complain, for two reasons. The first is that translation is humbling work, and I would not be so arrogant as to believe that every single piece of work I do is without blemish. The second is that a better translation is often possible. It is the nature of the beast.

This time, however I did complain to the effect that texts of this type for publication ought not to be given to anyone except experienced translators, and certainly not to non natives.

I understand from the reply I received that the translation was definitely done by someone whose mother tongue is English. I have been requested to provide feedback.

So, what went so wrong that it could fluster my calm exterior? Is it the nagging thought that perhaps this translator gets paid the same rate as I do? No. That is no business of mine.

If the translator was indeed an English native – and I have no reason to disbelieve the agency, for which I have been working for some time – then he or she must lack experience.

Tips for inexperienced translators

Think about the purpose of the text.

Who is writing it? – A corporate entity? Who is going to read it? Employees? Important customers?  Or (God forbid!) other translators?

Where is it going to be published? In the newspaper? Online? Staff newspaper? Glossy brochure?

Check dates. This will save you getting confused over verb tenses and mistranslating. You would think that this is a simple, obvious thing to do. It may well be the middle of January when you translate the text.  If the source text says, “The company has been using its new logo since the beginning of March”, do not translate this as, “The company will start using its new logo in March”, because in that short sentence you will have committed two translation errors, and probably more similar errors elsewhere in the text. Instead, look for a clue. On papers such as these there is normally something which says, “publication date” or “for release on X date”. In this example, the publication date is probably mid-March. Remember, in journalism and marketing, one does not have to wait for something to happen before writing about it.

What is the core message of the text? e.g. “We are a great company with a wonderful new manager” or, “We are a wonderful company even though our new manager expresses himself as if he constantly has to deal with a misplaced carrot?” You decide.

If the text is for a medium-sized or large company, it is imperative that you read the company website in the source language and, if possible, in the target language of your translation. This can save you agonising minutes of terminological choices, and plain embarrassment at making up your own name for their flagship division.

Do not translate word for word.  Do not translate word for word. I repeated that.

Hands up, English natives: Who says “Furthermore”, “Moreover” or “In addition comma” at the beginning of their sentences? I imagine I am addressing an entire stadium full of people at the London 2012 Olympics. There is a hushed silence. Only two people, after much prompting by their friends, raise their hands.

You get my point: Even if the dictionary says that these German words mean what they mean, find another way to express them. Use them sparingly (stadium image) if you have to, but please do not put them all in the same paragraph. (I have done so below, by way of example; it is tiresome.) German has many set phrases or structures which connect succeeding sentences to the preceding ones. So has English. But they are not always the same. Some can occasionally be omitted in the target text or conveyed by other lexical elements.

Do not translate one sentence at a time, and then forget about it. CAT tools try to segment our thoughts, but you must resist!  German is streaks ahead of English when it comes to packing a sentence full of information.  This is why English sometimes needs two sentences where German only needs one. Be flexible!

Understand your source text thoroughly. I do not care how many double backward somersaults with twists you have to do to arrive at that point. Just understand it. Do not guess. The path between source language and target language is treacherous enough, without you guessing. Once you arrive at the other side, use your imagination, your English dictionary, your thesaurus.  Search the Internet if you do not think that “subsequent measurement date” is not a real accounting term. Read. Learn. Remember.

Do not follow the word order of the source text. Seriously. Yes, we all know Germans do things with their verbs that the English can only dream of. I am referring to the adverbial phrases of time and place. English has word order options for these which German does not. Use them.  Change your sentences around. Remember, in English, we only encounter sentences beginning, “In the year 2025, …” in science fiction. Normal people simply say, “In 2025 …”

If you get stuck, do not stay stuck. Carry on with the translation if the bit you’re stuck on is not pivotal. Come back to the sticky bit from time to time simply to check if it makes sense yet. If not, do not despair. It will.

If it does not, then post a query on your favourite terminology forum. When doing so, please be smart enough to remove all evidence of the origin of your text, including corporate sounding acronyms. Keep confidential information confidential.

Remember Some of us have our acronym code-cracking diplomas, and can spot wording idiosyncrasies from multinationals a mile away.

Give some translators half a sentence, and they will find the third draft of an obscure document circulated to only 60 people on the whole planet somewhere. And they will provide you with a link, moreover. In addition, they will ask you, “Is this the document you’re translating?” Furthermore, they will give you a downright bollocking (lovely word!) for being so careless about respecting confidentiality. I should mention, however (<– there’s another word with which you should not begin your sentence), that you only learn by asking good questions. Because they beget good answers from good translators (if you’re lucky). And only start your sentences with “And” or “Because” on your own blog, where you are the Editor-in-Chief. 🙂

If you have recently embarked upon your career as a translator, your head is hurting around about now.

I shall leave you with my last piece of advice. Read through your completed translation. Check your work. Check your work.  Read through it again and again. Read through it aloud again and again. Correct the typographical errors. Rework the bits that sound strange.  Read through the whole thing again.

Just when you think you are finished, and ready to deliver your work, imagine that someone who has been translating for longer than you have been alive will probably be revising your work. Read through your work one more time, and correct the errors you missed. Then – and only then – send it to the client.

Then (and this is entirely optional). Go outside. Take a look at the view. And recite Psalm 121, or your spiritual equivalent.

For all the minor annoyances one can experience when revising other translators’ work, those of us with more experience have to remember that we were beginners once upon a time, and doff our caps silently at the kind souls who mentored us. A little encouragement can go a long way, and I reckon that is the kind of feedback I shall end up giving to the young translator who made my day today.

My two cents’ worth, as they say in the trade. 🙂

©2012 Allison Wright

8 thoughts on “Revise that!

  1. I’m not a professional translator (but I have started writing again) and I agree with everything you have written above. I have just finished a new short book and I lost count of the number of times I read it, checked it, spell checked it, re-checked it and declared it finished. Until someone else read it and pointed out a couple of errors that I had missed. For translators it is even more important, I know. Check, check, check.


      1. Thank you for the light relief, Grace. This is serious business, though. I know my clients prefer me to be a “check” sort of gal. Discerning agencies, believe it or not, can tell if the translator has not done that final “extra” check. How? Simple. It shows. 🙂


  2. One of Brazilian greatest authors once said:
    “Writing should be done in the same manner that a washwoman of Alagoas practices her craft. These women start with a first washing, soak the dirty clothing at the bank of the lagoon or brook, wring the cloth, soak it again, and then wring it once more. They add the indigo, soap and wring once, then twice. They then rinse, and soak it again, now splashing the water with their hands. They beat the cloth on a slab or clean stone, they wring it again and once more, wring it until no drop drops from the cloth anymore. Only after they do all this they hang the cleaned clothing to dry, on a rope or clothes line. For whoever goes into writing should do the very same thing. The word is not meant to embellish, to spark as fake gold; the word is meant to say”. (Graciliano Ramos in an interview, in 1948)


  3. Thank you for your question, Kat. As I said above, the idea is to use expressions such as ‘In addition, …’, ‘Furthermore’ and ‘Moreover’ sparingly. Obviously, the context and the register of the text will determine their frequency of use. I have no qualms in using such expressions in formal texts, contracts, official (government) documents if they are indeed what is called for, and the alternatives (which I shall talk about below) would be out of place. The text I was revising which prompted this blog, however, was a fairly light-weight press release about recent activities within the company with a general public relations feel to it, as opposed to being targeted marketing material. I believe I changed ‘furthermore’ to ‘and’ once, and to ‘also’ the second time in this text.
    How you can improve the fluidity with which you find equivalent conjunctions appropriate to your text in English as a target language when German is the source could initially be thought of as hard grind, and not particularly interesting. (The benefit of your e-mail address which no one else can see means that I was able to find out a bit about you quite quickly!)
    Step 1: Read all about conjunctions in your source language (and adverbial phrases used as conjunctions). I know you will already have done this at school or university when you learned the language, but you need to do it again, this time from the perspective of a translator – and not a language learner.
    Even if you restrict yourself to Wikipedia (which you should not)
    then you will discover that, ‘Die Konjunktion “und” hat mehrere Bedeutungen.’ Who knew? 🙂
    Step 2: Do exactly the same in your target language.
    Step 3 is the same for both source and target: Now that you have committed to memory most of the conjunctions in both your source and target languages, you need to find a good monolingual dictionary and thesaurus in both languages, and simply explore.
    Since English is the target in my case, I seek to improve my use of English daily. The Free Dictionary helps me if I need a quick jolt, but do not necessarily want to interrupt the translation process. If need be, I can always read everything in detail.
    Here is The Free Dictionary entry for ‘furthermore’:
    The thesaurus section is often helpful when you are stuck for alternative expressions. If you scroll down on this page, you will find that TFD now offers dictionary translations into any number of languages (which sometimes need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but do provide a starting point for look-ups in a monolingual dictionary of the language you have chosen) – also made easy here:
    Another good online resource – which I only recently learnt about from a colleague – is the Collins Dictionary website:
    Ideally, this kind of in-depth mind work should not be done during the act of translation, but something you do out of sheer curiosity – and the need to develop a certain independence from looking up every second word when you are translating (which is pretty much how we all start out).
    Why I speak about the importance of revision (as opposed to proofreading) is because all translators, however experienced, have to remain critical of their own work. It also helps if you also have someone else revising your work before you hit the Send button on the assignment. The four-eyes principle. 🙂 That second pair of eyes will always find something that only one pair of eyes misses. Always. This is both humbling and educational.
    For the purposes of providing an example of what can be achieved through critical revision of your ‘final’ translation, I shall now be (slightly) critical of a random paragraph of translation found online to show how small changes in word order can improve readability and flow.
    Let’s start with the English paragraph taken from here:
    “In sought-after housing markets property prices once again rose more rapidly than rents in 2015. It appears that, with housing continuing to be in short supply, some investors are speculating that they will be able to hike rents even further, thus increasing the risk of regional property price bubbles. However, German banks are continuing to maintain high credit standards while the macro-prudential supervisory authorities prevent a nationwide property price bubble from developing in Germany.”
    The first sentence is fine. If this were my draft translation (which it is not), this is what I would do with the second and third sentences when revising (assuming I have allowed myself sufficient time to do so, and assuming, too, that I had not already done so as I was translating):
    – With housing continuing to be in short supply, it appears that some investors are speculating that they will be able to hike rents even further, thus increasing the risk of regional property price bubbles. German banks nevertheless continue to maintain high credit standards while the macro-prudential supervisory authorities prevent a nationwide property price bubble from developing in Germany. –
    I have eliminated a comma, a ‘however’ at the beginning of the third sentence, and ‘tightened up’ a verb tense without altering the meaning for the purposes of this text. I revised the English without reference to the German, which is most likely to have been the source.
    Let’s now find out what the German did say:
    “In begehrten Wohnungsmärkten sind die Immobilienpreise auch 2015 stärker gestiegen als die Mieten. Ein Teil der Investoren scheint darauf zu spekulieren, bei anhaltender Wohnraumknappheit weiter gehende Mieterhöhungen durchsetzen zu können. Das Risiko regionaler Immobilienpreisblasen nimmt dadurch zu. Allerdings halten deutsche Banken die Kreditstandards weiterhin hoch und die makroprudenzielle Aufsicht beugt einer deutschlandweiten Immobilienpreisblase vor.”
    We can note here that the translator of this piece joined two German sentences to make the second sentence in English, which is a sensible thing to do in this case, and I may well have done something similar if faced with this text. And here’s my other thought: Perhaps because the translator was so busy joining these two source sentences, he or she did not pay so much attention to the beginning of the sentence. This is not a major sin; it is merely something which would probably have been changed by the translator if the opportunity for a slight shift of focus had occurred. It is highly likely that this translation had to be done fairly quickly (although there is no evidence of it in the text, but something which KfW normally expects of its translators, as far as I am aware).
    You can do this sort of exercise with any reputable bilingual website or publication. Some of the best translators I know do this habitually when reading their mornings news. They take notes too when they find something well done – and retranslate in their head (or have private chats with their colleagues) when they find something poorly done.
    I have gone into detail because I realise, Kat, that you have not been translating for very long. I am not proposing this as the only method to find alternatives for ‘those awkward words’. This is one of the things I do. I have no idea what other translators do, and there may be as many methods as there are translators. The important thing is to develop your own method, and keep flexing your linguistic muscles.
    I hope that helps answer your question. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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