How’s Your English?
Most of us have heard it before: To be a good translator, you have to be a good writer. Today this maxim is truer than ever. Successful translators have always sought to provide high-quality copy to their clients as a way to add value and stand apart from the rest, but the increasing popularity of machine translation gives us even more incentive to be budding Shakespeares. Computers can do an adequate job of translating many types of texts, but selecting appropriate imagery in the target text or rearranging clauses for clarity—not so much. We also begin to work faster once we have the knack for text-wrangling.
If we want to write well, we need to think about what it means to be a good writer. We need to know how to test our writing ability, and, if found lacking, how to improve it. Let’s look at some solutions to these problems, specifically for translators who work into English.
When I say that writing well in your target language is a prerequisite for being a successful translator, I’m not talking about the ingredients that compose a good translation. These are things like accuracy, completeness, and conveying the same message in the same tone. No, good writing in translation requires a facility with style and composition, easy access to synonyms, and the ability to express ideas clearly and logically. Any English language style book will also list elements such as use of action verbs, active voice rather than passive, avoiding superfluous words, and short, concise sentences rather than long segments strung together with commas.
GOOD, BETTER, BEST
Good English may not be the top priority when translating long lists of online chat messages or a birth certificate, but it is essential for many of the other types of documents we work on. Instruction manuals and websites, to name but two, need to be easily understood and hold the reader’s attention. We are the language specialists, after all; we have a certain duty to show them how it’s done and maintain high quality in our work. Moreover, intentionally focusing on writing well is a productive mental exercise.
The promotion of good-quality English may butt up against the argument “Garbage in, garbage out.” Many translators feel that if they are handed a confusing mess of near-gibberish to translate, their output can be a confusing mess of near-gibberish. Here we are hovering dangerously close to our profession’s timeworn debate about whether our job is to improve the source document or to reproduce it. I’ll just say that context is key. If you have a job where you need to make your client look good, or people will rely on your words for information, for instance, you need to write well.
At the virtual Innovation in Translation Summit held in early October, 2021, translation Hall of Famer Chris Durban piped up in the chat during a live panel on “Pricing for Success” to point out that, of all the innovative ways being described to increase our rates, the topic of quality in our translations hadn’t been mentioned at all. It was reminiscent of the Burger King commercial that those of us of a certain age may remember, where the little old lady asks, “Where’s the beef?”
The response to Chris’s remark could be that high quality was being assumed in our work; it didn’t need to be explicitly discussed as a way to increase rates. And yet, this summit was about all the technological marvels available to us now and in the future that will improve our business and our translations. The use of a particular technology while translating is very likely to produce a different translation from one done exclusively by hand on paper. So I think it is worth addressing the issue of how technology affects quality in our work. Now, this article is not about how those newfangled gizmos are ruining our industry. It’s an article about writing well in English and why this matters.
But I do want to discuss some of the effects that MT has on the quality of into-English translation. I am a sometime user of MT; I think it is a fine tool in many cases. However, it does offer the translator many of the same terms for nontechnical vocabulary and repeat the same types of syntax and phrasing, making the output fairly dull. It can lull you into thinking that a so-so sentence is fine and dandy. It will not convert noun phrases into verbs to improve the English. One example:
|MT Output||Human Output|
|Backing up of data should occur daily.||You should back up data daily.|
If you agree that well-written English is important, the next step is to determine whether you do in fact write well, or you could use a bit of honing. One way to test yourself is the Hemingway App. At this website, you type in some of your writing, and the site will point out English no-nos like lengthy, complex sentences; overuse of adverbs; excessive words. It will also tell you the readability of your writing as a school grade level. Based on Ernest Hemingway’s reputation for paring down his writing to the barest minimum necessary to tell the story, the site is not a foolproof way of testing your competence, but it is interesting.
You can also try the evaluation at The Writer’s Diet. Type in between 100 and 1000 words, and the site will tell you whether your writing is “flabby or fit.” Then check out the site’s customized writing space. It offers a fee-based subscription to help you with your compositional prowess.
Another option for assessing your writing ability is to join a writers’ group. Most public libraries have at least one writer’s group that meets periodically to discuss their work and comment on each other’s efforts. In my experience with writers’ groups, participants are more focused on encouraging each other to continue writing than on honest critiques, so you may not get the advice you’re looking for. A popular writers’ blog, Reedsy, offers some writers’ groups for other genres.
HELP IS ON THE WAY
Let’s just assume we could all use a little tweaking of our English writing skills, and turn to some ways to address the matter. Many believe that the No. 1 way to improve our writing is to read authors who write well. The classics we were assigned in high school are a good start: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Maya Angelou, or Mark Twain, for example. Don’t forget writers outside the canon, like James Baldwin or Ellis Peters.
You could also take an online writing or journalism course with your favorite platform: ed2go, Masterclass, Coursera, etc. Other sites will dole out the language information in bite-size pieces to keep your writing skills sharp. Merriam-Webster will send a word of the day to your Inbox to help build your vocabulary. Pelagic or epizeuxis, anyone? It also has word games and quizzes for mental workouts Another site I like is Daily Writing Tips. These linguists will email you a daily tip on a broad range of topics, such as etymology, word usage, and synonyms. I will close this list with the Chicago Style Workouts at the hallowed Chicago Manual of Style website. At last count, the site had 58 quizzes you can take to explore your knowledge of topics like possessives, use of hyphens, word usage, and how to proofread.
Lastly, to check usage and style points as we write, we have a wide array of online choices. The Slot was created by copyeditor par excellence Bill Walsh. The site has been frozen in time since 2017 when Bill died, but it still contains some of his enlightening explanations of word usage under “Sharp Points.” We also have the Stack Exchange, where you can ask questions and read answers to other people’s questions on a slew of topics, from “Do you say ‘It is I who is’ or ‘It is I who am’?” to “What do you call the point of land created by the confluence of two rivers?” Also look into Grammar Girl, who offers “quick and dirty tips” on grammar. To clean up your writing before delivery, consider proofing and editing software. Fractus Learning reviews several options here.
We already know that being a good translator requires keeping abreast of new information. While we endeavor to stay current in our areas of specialization, learn new technologies, and brush up on our foreign languages, we should also be fine-tuning our skills in our native language. Luckily for us, we have a plethora of ways to do that. Please add any of your own tips in the Comments section.
About the Author
Diana Rhudick is a career translator who has been working since the days of typewriters and Wite-Out. She is ATA-certified in French and Spanish into English, specializing in legal, business, and marketing texts. Her workweeks are divided between translating and proofreading for her own clients and managing projects for a small translation outfit. She secretly judges people who say “between you and I.” For more information, please go to https://dianarhudick.net/or https://www.linkedin.com/in/dianarhudick.
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Thanks for the great resources under the “Help is on the Way” section. Can’t wait to explore them!
Thank you, Diane for writing this!
A germane topic that often gets underplayed among translators. This year I began editing for a few translators. I’d have sworn some of them were getting paid by the target word and padding the text intentionally. Not so, I have since learned. They simply needed someone to help them tighten things up. It’s been gratifying to see their growth — and my own, as I find I benefit from their revisions as well. So I suppose that is the one point I would add to this article: Working with human editors, whether they are fellow translators or native speakers (and writers!) in the target language, can be invaluable!
I look forward to exploring all of the resources Diane has so kindly compiled for us!
Thank you for your comments, Lisa. I agree: Working with an editor is edifying and excellent.