Tips for longer amateur translation projects

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)!

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2 Responses to Tips for longer amateur translation projects

  1. Jessa says:

    I wanted to make a brief note on one of the points you make in section 2, that being that one should not worry about being overwhelmingly accurate, and rather first aim to convey the feel of the piece. Recently, I read Camus’ “L’étranger” in both its original French and in English translation. In the preface to the translated version, the translator (whose name I unfortunately cannot recall) explained his approach by saying something like “I tried to provide as literal a translation as possible of Camus’ original – in doing so, I should hope that the sense of the work would take care of itself.” (heavily paraphrased for obvious reasons). This, he said, was a response to previously available translations which had aimed too forcibly to capture the sense of the work and as a result had lost some of the original’s literary merit.
    I have no personal experience with translation, but I have a great interest in French literature and have thus read many works in both French and English versions (English being my first language). In any case, the translator’s point seemed to make some sense, and I thought I would contribute it here as an addendum to your very thoughtful post.

    • Sophia says:

      Hi Jessa! Thank you very much for your insightful addition! I am by no means well-versed where translation is concerned, but I did attempt to put together some things that have helped me over the course of the last six or so years. You needn’t have taken a text from one language to another to understand the principles behind successful work, so again, thank you for the input. I’d love to find out more about your literature-related interests. Whom do you read? Have you done or would you be interested in doing any projects involving literary analysis and translation?

      I would definitely be inclined to agree with you – the translator does indeed seem to make sense. I think this is Michael Ward, actually – I recall the fragment in a slightly different form in his preface of sorts; he certainly was not a fan of what he, I believe, termed “a certain paraphrastic earnestness”, haha.

      It is most definitely important to avoid venturing too far from “the letter” if one is seeking to accurately portray a given work, but striking that necessary balance [i]is[/i] rather difficult. I’ve read translations that have sought so heavily to retain idioms that they have, quite frankly, forgotten to be idiomatic; I have stumbled upon others that, while beautifully written, almost appeared to deviate from the intent of the author. I could go on, but I think my point is clear: a good translation in all senses of the adjective is not readily produced.

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