Tips for better
translations

Handy tips to improve content quality from an experienced translator

Translation can be as rewarding as any creative activity can be, and it can be as frustrating and exhausting as any difficult task can be. On a good day, the translated words on the page will flow in beautiful time with the words you are reading. On a bad day, every sentence will feel like you’ve just hit a brick wall. There is nothing a translator loves better than a well-written text that speaks directly to the reader with as few words as possible. Less is more, more or less. As long as you have some decent context.

Clarity

Handy tips for better translations

Before you deliver your text to LanguageWire, you may want to proof it one last time and ask yourself:

  1. Does it say what I mean?
  2. What it says – what exactly does that mean?
  3. Does the sentence have to be that long?
  4. Who am I writing for?

Experienced translators aren’t afraid to ask their customer the deceptively simple question: What does this sentence mean? Can you explain it or re-phrase it? Most customers are happy to be asked because it means the translator is striving to give them the best translation possible.

Often this kind of questioning can result in a translated text that is better than the original, or it gives the customer the opportunity to improve the original.

I’ve had customers thank me for having asked: what exactly does this sentence mean? What’s it trying to say? Or even – I just don’t understand this sentence. Can you explain?

Sometimes the customer will cut the sentence from the original or instruct me to ignore the sentence or will supply a re-written sentence or explain what they mean. 

Context

Handy tips for better translations

Context is King – translators tell each other this every day on translator forums when they help each other translate tricky sentences, phrases, or terms. If you want to know how tricky translation can be without context try this little experiment with a friend: Each of you take 10 words at random from a dictionary of a second language you are both familiar with – most Danes for example, would choose English here, since English is Denmark’s second language. List the ten words on a page. Now swap your pages and translate the list you’ve been given. Guaranteed, there will be some words that you will realise can mean a lot of different things.

So what’s the right translation? Well, it all depends on the context. And if you have no context?

This is often a translator’s problem. The text they have doesn’t have much context. It may be a User Manual, or a text describing a User Interface for a machine the translator may never see or use, or even the software text for a User Interface (e.g. the text you see written inside a button on a touchscreen).

So the more context you can give the translator the better. Because you may not realise it but a translator spends a lot of time searching the web when doing a translation – looking for context.

Of course, professional translators have learned not to be too trusting of what they read on the internet. They will use trusted websites and they will compare websites. And they will even look at the websites of your competitors.

So context is good – as long as it’s the right context.

Terminology

Handy tips for better translations

Let’s call a spade a spade – there are some people out there who will call a spade a tool, a garden implement, the equipment, the apparatus, the dirt-remover, the digger, the excavator.

If you don’t think terminology is important to people, try saying ‘windmill’ to someone who works in the wind power industry. Terminology is closely related to context. Another thing that’s closely linked with the terminology, is consistency.

Use certain terms and stick to them. You can even have a list of banned terms. For example, your company stipulates that the translator must never use the term ‘dirt-remover’.

It helps greatly if you stick to your own terminology. Back in the day I did translations for a firm called Softly & Andersen who hated people using the abbreviation ‘S&A’ – which people tended to do, the way some people say ‘McDs’ instead of McDonald’s. Fair enough. So it was therefore annoying and confusing to some other translators when the source texts they would be tasked with translating repeatedly used ‘S&A’. Inevitably, ‘S&A’ started sneaking into translations as well.

I once had an instruction manual to translate where the author used three different nouns that could be translated as the operator, the machine operator and the cable operator. Eventually I asked the customer – are these three different individuals, because it looks to me that this machine is operated by just one person. The customer replied that yes, they were all the same person and just use the word ‘operator’.

Another example was a manual where the author used five different terms when he was referring to a single sensor on a machine. It was the same sensor every time. So imagine that text being translated into several languages and all of those other translators using five different translated terms for the same thing.

So terminology is also linked to consistency. Stick to the terms. But of course, some terms are not terms at all – it can depend on, yes you guessed it, the context. Some terms are in-house slang that have no place in a text for a wider audience.

I once translated a text for a brochure for a major meat processing company. One of the texts was about a meat processing line where the source text repeatedly used the Danish noun for Christmas tree. Eventually I asked the customer what is the ‘Christmas Tree’ – and they sent a picture of a meat rack on which cuts of meat were hung. The meat rack looked a bit like a Christmas tree, and using the word for Christmas tree made perfect sense to the people working on the line. But it would make no sense to the general reader.

Some authors go to the other extreme, and use so much terminology that the text becomes almost unreadable. This is often a problem when engineers or technicians write about a machine or product. 

It’s a similar thing that happens when people create PowerPoint slides – suddenly they think everything needs to be a proper noun. This is partly to do with the form and layout of these sorts of texts, which tend to be like this:

A Heading

Followed by a Small Chuck of Text (SCT). The SCT must contain some Information That Is Useful (ITIU). This will be followed by two or three Important Bullet Points (IBP).

  • Text must have Flow and have Meaning
  • Flow and Meaning results in Smooth Text (ST)
  • Smooth Text means the Message is Clear

A line of End Text or SCT that has ITIU.

Pretty soon, as I’m sure you are now, the reader is blinded by a blizzard of proper nouns, abbreviations and acronyms. The text just becomes noise. The information is lost in the noise. So sometimes, it’s way better to lose it than use it.

Of course, not every company manages their terminology. But if you don’t, I recommend you start today. Your texts and your translated texts will benefit from it. LanguageWire translators are good at managing terminology. In fact, they love it when the customer uses terminology.

Conclusion

If you can deliver a text to LanguageWire that has clarity, context and the correct terminology, you can be sure the translator will be extremely happy to work on the translation and LanguageWire and the translator will do their absolute best to deliver the best possible translation.

Clarity isn’t easy. Simplicity isn’t simple.

But it will help everyone involved if you can achieve it and the most important person in all of this – the reader, your customer.

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