Conveying the content of a source text is not enough. As translators we should also be writers.
Machine translation may be in the news a lot these days, but in the real world there are many clients who are looking for quality translations. But what is a quality translation? A translation that correctly reflects the content of the original, uses the correct terminology, is grammatically correct, and does not contain any typos or spelling mistakes. Obviously. But is this enough? For many clients it isn’t. They want a translation that is well written and that appeals to the reader (their client). And this is not just limited to advertising texts.
Do we always deliver this? Apparently not, judging by a comment I once heard from a client: “We’ve worked with translators before, but we weren’t happy with their work, so we want to work with writers.” Ouch! Mind you, this was not the type of client who would hire cheap, inexperienced translators. The message is clear though: translators should also be writers. How can we achieve this?
Before You Start
Before you start translating a text, it’s essential to know who you are writing for. Not only do you need to know the target audience, but you also need to know what the goal of the text is and how it will be used. For example, is it an advertising text aimed at selling a specific product to teenagers, or is it a text aimed at convincing an audience of all ages to be more aware of the environment? Is the text going to be published online or in print? All this information will help you decide which style and register to use and how to address the readers to get them interested and, more importantly, to keep them interested.
Once you have determined, based on the input from the client, who and what the text is for and which style and register to use, you can use all sorts of techniques to make your text more lively. Some of the writing tips listed here may not be appropriate for all types of texts, but you shouldn’t be afraid to try something different every now and then. People don’t want to read the same sort of text over and over again, but they do want to be surprised occasionally.
Make sure your style is consistent, but don’t be afraid to play with style. Your writing style should be consistent in all documents for the same client. Style is like a corporate identity: it should be recognizable in all types of texts, whether it’s a website text, a newsletter, or a brochure. But feel free to play with style within those limits. There are many shades of formal and informal writing, so where appropriate, you can always add a dash of humor, for example, in the form of word play, to lighten up a text.
Don’t be afraid to try something different. People don’t want to read clichés. Use a thesaurus to come up with new alternatives. Go crazy in your first draft (don’t worry, nobody is going to see it!). Keep in mind that you can tame a wild idea, but you cannot make a tame idea wild. In other words, you can tone down an exaggerated text to fit your target audience, but it’s a lot harder to rewrite a bland text into something more exciting.
Don’t make your text too formal. Even if the client has asked you to use a formal tone of voice, don’t make it too formal. And make sure you talk directly to the reader. As soon as we feel a pen in our hand or a keyboard under our fingers we automatically seem to switch to “written text mode,” which equates to a formal, impersonal style of writing. Lighten up! You do want people to read what you write, don’t you?
Choose a catchy headline. Catchy headlines stand out and people tend to remember them. If you’re not sure whether the client will like your original headline, offer several alternatives, including a more toned down version, so the client can choose which one they like best. You can do this for just the title of the text or even for all the subheadings. However, make sure that the client is happy with this; some clients simply want you to come up with the solution.
Apart from using writing tips and tricks to improve your text, there are a couple of practical tips that might help you create a better translation.
Ask for briefs, style guides, and sample texts. Style guides, previously translated texts, or any relevant texts from the client can give you an idea of the style used by the client. If the client doesn’t have any sample texts, it might be difficult to figure out which shade of formal or informal writing they want. In this case, it’s a good idea to send the client a sample of your translation as soon as possible (just one page is usually enough), so they can see whether this is what they want or use it to indicate what they don’t want.
Try to “sleep” on the text. We’ve all experienced it. You’re in the middle of a translation and you get stuck. You’re trying to find a good translation for this one knotty sentence, but every alternative you try sounds awkward. So you set it aside. The next day you open the file on which you’re working and immediately come up with a perfect translation for that particular sentence. This is why it’s not a good idea to accept short deadlines if you want to deliver a well-written translation. It’s so much better to sleep on it. And if you can’t leave it until the next day, take a break. Go and do something else. Do you always get your best ideas when taking a shower or when you’re standing in line at the supermarket? Then go take a shower or go to the supermarket! This is easier for those of us working as freelance translators, but if you can’t do that, maybe you can take a short break and take a walk outside?
Read the text out loud. Does your translation sound natural? Do you stumble over certain sentences or have to read them again? Every time you have to stop, check the text and rewrite it. It also helps to read the text in a different format, for example, on paper instead of on your screen. Even changing the font can help: the text will look different to you and it’s almost as if you are looking at it with a fresh eye.
How to Improve Your Writing
Tips and tricks are not enough. If you want to become a translator and a writer, you’ll have to work continuously on improving your writing skills.
Read books and attend courses on copywriting. Even if you don’t offer copywriting services, books and courses on copywriting offer a lot of useful advice on how to write well. There are plenty of books on copywriting available,1 so just try a few and see which one works best with the type of texts you usually translate.
Work with a proofreader. This is already common practice in translation, but in my experience it’s especially helpful when you translate more creative texts. If you simply can’t come up with a fun solution for that unusual expression or that hilarious pun, it helps to be able to brainstorm about it with someone else. If possible, try to find someone who is more experienced than you or has copywriting experience. Partnering up with the same proofreader is especially useful when working on long-term projects that have to be consistent when it comes to style: if the translator and the proofreader know each other well, they can develop a consistent style together. Being able to discuss the text is really useful and something which, unfortunately, is not always possible when working on a job for an agency.
Specialize. Specialization isn’t just about terminology, it’s also about understanding the language used by specialists and being able to talk to them in their own language. Fashion texts, for example, are very informal and use a lot of word play, so you should be able to reproduce that in your translation.
Spice It Up!
As translators, we’re not authors who can write whatever we want. We’re limited to the source text and clients often want us to stick to that source text, but at the same time they don’t want a literal translation. It’s our job to find a balance between using the source text and still producing an original, well-written translation. One way to do that is to spice up your translation and make it just that little bit different than every other text.
1. Here are two books on copywriting that I’ve found useful:
- Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (Penguin Books, 2015).
- Atkinson, Ian. Copy. Righter: Become a Master Wordsmith and Harness the Copywriting Secrets That Will Win You Hearts, Minds … and Business (LID Publishing Inc, 2014).
Percy Balemans graduated from the School of Translation and Interpreting in the Netherlands in 1989. After working with a translation agency as an in-house translator for a few years, she served as a technical writer and copywriter, information designer, web editor, and trainer for an information technology business. She has been a full-time freelance English>Dutch and German>Dutch translator since 2007, specializing in advertising (transcreation), fashion, art, and travel and tourism. In addition to ATA, she is a member of the Netherlands Society of Interpreters and Translators and the Chartered Institute of Linguists. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.