A friend recently noted that he’d like to go about translating a text this summer, and asked for advice from people who had previously undertaken projects of this sort. Coincidentally, I recently brought Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid into Czech so that my grandmother could go through it – I haven’t as yet found a satisfactory conversion – and some insights were gained via the experience. I’ve attempted to organize these below in the form of some tips that I’d give to individuals attempting a translation project for the first time.
1. The language that you’re translating into and the language that you’re translating from should both be highly familiar to you. You needn’t be fluent (I’m not, in English), but you do need to be able to coherently read and write, obviously. I know that this appears obvious, but I’m essentially saying that you should be using your first and second languages, as you understand them idiomatically.
2. Determine the purpose of your translation, and function accordingly. Is it just an attempt for the sake of an attempt? A piece of work to be, say, given to a friend or family member? Do you intend to try to publish? If this isn’t an exceedingly formal project, see it as an experiment. Translating often really helps you get to the core of your language understanding, as it forces you to attempt to equate expressions in different languages whilst remaining grammatically and idiomatically accurate. Don’t worry too much about being overwhelmingly accurate – try to convey the feel first. If it’s the latter case, then, generally, something disappointing must be noted: you should consider holding off on thinking about publishing things until you’ve more experience. Of course, it is entirely possible to generate something great on your first go, but if you’re granting serious consideration to your project, give yourself an abundance of time.
3. Ask someone who a) is not particularly intrigued by linguistics and language, b) is fluent in both languages, and c) has read the original closely to read your text. Get this person to explain his or her reactions in everyday terms. This should help you gauge what you’re doing correctly, and what you’re failing to convey to your audience. Of course, if your audience is specialized, ensure that you find an appropriately specialized representative.
4. If you’re stuck, do some technical translations as exercises. Procure a paper from any online database and have a go at it. This will enrich your vocabulary, and will enable you to drill basic, technical things like tenses and declensions. If you’ve any serious problems with a language, they will be revealed by your inability to translate jargon-free technical writing. Paper- or scientific-magazine-style writing is typically very straightforward; whilst you may not understand terminology (this is okay), you should be able to understand the kinds of sentences that typically emerge in this kind of writing. While I did tell you to focus on getting the feel across earlier, it is important to know that you can coherently work with basic syntax prior to approaching something more cryptic.
On a final note, don’t fear. Jump in and debug along the way. I assure you that if this went bearably for me, it can quite readily go well for you. Happy babbling (or Babeling)!