Common errors of new translators

Translating is a creative action, a painstaking operation requiring a sharp ear and a feeling for language. On the other hand, translating is also a craft, and of course there are tips and rules of thumb one can pass on to new translators, and practical problems to discuss.

It is obvious that a new translator must be very well acquainted with the source language, in both its written and spoken forms. It is no good simply looking words up in a dictionary; just as important as the dictionary meanings of words are their usage and frequency in the everyday language, and the way they are incorporated into the context.

The question of interpretation is paramount for new translators. As important as understanding what the text is actually saying is to inquire about what the text is not telling. The novice translator might be impelled to go beyond translation and over-interpret the source text, as he/she tries to read between the lines. The best option is to keep it simple and complete, neither more nor less than the original text.

Despite all the theory crammed in colleges and faculties into the head of a wannabe translator, the most common errors by new translators arise because of their lack of experience. The novice translator needs to establish a number of procedures which will keep them closer to the original and, hopefully, less “creative”.

The new translator needs to read and understand the whole source text he/she is working on. The document must be appreciated as a whole, not as a sequence of phrases, sentences, and paragraphs put together which will be translated without a previous introduction and knowledge. A very example is the case of scientific papers, which are classically arranged in four basic units: abstract, introduction, development, conclusions, which makes mandatory the reading of the whole text by the translator. Each unit depends from the other. For instance, translating the abstract requires previous knowledge of the article as it summarizes and points the direction of the text.

Novice translators often believe they can work every subject with the same proficiency. The novice translator needs to understand the subject matter text. If he/she has no previous knowledge of the subject there is nothing like some good research on the subject. So, browsing and reading through a good website about the theme is a very good way of making a bridge with the theme and specialized jargon, word usage and phrasing. This is also a very good moment to shed light over difficulties felt during the reading stage.

The translated output must be natural, in order that “translatese” is avoided. A good example is to avoid unnatural phrasings created by a middle-language with the grammar of the source’s language and the words of the target language (as in the English “wash the teeth,” from the Portuguese “lavar os dentes”). The final translation must be fluid and sound as natural as possible. Experience warns us that the original style will be present in the novice translation, provided that he/she has fully read and understood the original source document.

A very good piece of advice for new translators is to recognize their limits. A long and complex legal text is not the same has a brochure for a luxury resort. The responsibility is not the same, and that is even more evident when lives are at stake… no matter how demanding the new professional is.

As a tutor I have had the bad experience going through texts where the final reading had not been made by the novice (trainee) translator. This is an essential moment in the translation process that many apprentices tend to forfeit. The time spent in going through the lines checking little nuances that may be improved, spell checking, adding missing commas and other punctuation, and overall final touches will give the extra edge in what is considered professional translation by a professional translator.

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