The road to good translations – 5 tips for companies

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How to get better translations and find good translators. Here’s what you need to know to get more creative and more effective marketing texts from translators.

Back when I worked as a translator of financial texts, my experience taught me that one thing matters more than anything else: unfailing accuracy.

Yet after joining a creative agency that focuses mainly on copywriting, but also on translation, I was able to step back and see a bigger picture, because there are so many other things that matter, too.

The financial reports I used to translate had to accurately convey facts and figures, but they didn’t have to be stylistic masterpieces. In my current job, I have learned that translating marketing texts is very different: it requires me to rely much more on my skills as a creative writer.

Isabel Bogdan – a German author and translator of literary texts from English to German – recently spoke about her experience as a translator in a local workshop. During a Q&A session, she was asked an important question:

How can you tell when a translation (or a translator) is good?

Isabel Bogdan’s answer was short, charming and spot-on: “If it’s well-written, it’s a good translation.” This is undeniably one of the most important characteristics of a good translation, whether for the world of literature or the world of business. But there’s more.

Don’t get lost in translation

Apart from copywriting, my colleagues and I at steelecht do a lot of translation between German and English, and so we quickly came up with some characteristics of a good translation – and a good translator. If you or your company wants high-quality results from skilled translators, be sure to remember these five essential points:

1.) Being a native speaker is not enough. Translators should also be good writers.

When new customers come to us, we’re often asked if the translator is a native speaker of the target language. This question is not wrong, but it it’s certainly incomplete. It would be much better to ask if the translator is a native speaker and a professional copywriter, journalist or writer. Many native speakers speak a second language well enough to translate, but that does not mean they write well in their own language. They need to have a good feeling for their own language, and to have the ability to create texts that generate the desired response within readers.

We at steelecht believe that in order to be a good translator, you must also be a skilled and creative writer who can deliver a well-structured and effective text with the proper tonality.

2.) A good translation doesn’t sound like a translation at all. It sounds like a good text.

This is only possible if you work together with a translator who knows how to write well (point 1). But you, as a customer, will also have to accept the fact that different languages work differently, and a 1-to-1 translation is almost never a good idea, especially when it comes to marketing texts.

Every language has its own special quirks, unique possibilities and even limitations. When going from one language to another, translators may have to sacrifice a play on words, although they might find other opportunities to add unique touches to the text in order to make it more of a “second original”.

The most important job for a translator is to transpose the overall message from one language to another while using the proper tonality.

Compared to that, individual words are inconsequential. Of course the details matter, but be careful not to get so focussed on the nitty gritty of a text that you miss the forest for the trees.

3.) Good translators use their heads and have the courage to make improvements.

One of the hallmarks of skilled writer-translators is that, whenever necessary, they also try to improve texts as they re-write them.

However, it takes courage to change a text, knowing that – occasionally – a client might think this represents a slight on the original. But, since styles often diverge from one language to another, it’s important for you as a client not only to accept these differences, but to expect them as a sign of quality. Texts can often be improved by, say, leaving something out, adding extra information, or re-arranging sentences and paragraphs.

Isabel Bogdan had a good example of this in her workshop. She said that a translator is much like an actor: his or her interpretation of a text can make it better or sometimes make it worse.

Here are a few examples of changes that make good sense:

  • It is better to leave out an idiom or some other play on words if there is no equivalent (or better) option in the target language.
  • Let’s face it: sometimes there are awkward sentences in the texts we translate. Here, it’s better to make sure you understand the meaning and say it more clearly using other words. This is the process we use for transcreation.
  • Translators should recognize passages that would be difficult to understand by target language readers. Let’s say the original language is German. The original text might assume certain knowledge, i.e. things that all Germans know. That “assumed knowledge” will have to be added to the translation. The translator can either research this information and add it, or call the client to talk about what needs to be added.
  • If they notice it, thoughtful translators will make notes of grammatical or factual errors in the original. NB: they might stop this practice for certain clients if they get the feeling it is not appreciated.
  • Good translators ask questions, without the fear of losing face. We can’t specialize in everything, so it’s important for us to ask when we don’t understand something technical or some unfamiliar jargon. This is not a sign of weakness, but rather a mark of quality and a sign that the translator cares.

4.) Excellent translations are the result of teamwork.

Experienced translators can deliver good work in isolation, but even the best translators can improve their results by working in a team. Working in a team gives you access to people who can help you with a difficult passage or find the perfect words to say exactly what you want, because two heads are always better than one.

It’s also important for translation teams to build proofreading into their workflow. A separate person should experience the translation in isolation, and give it any necessary final touches to make sure it sounds like an original. This peer-review process should be part of every translation.

5.) Clients also play a role in the creation of good translations – by providing good briefings.

You know what you want. So share your knowledge with your translator in concrete terms. No matter how good your translators are, they can’t read minds. It’s always better to share too much information than too little.

At least let your translators know the following information:

  • What type of text is it? This is normally something a translator can find out independently, but having this information in advance gives the translator a better impression of style before even starting (press release, blog article, e-mail, product description, etc.).
  • Who is the target group? You know the target group, but your translator might not be able to infer that knowledge from the text. Also consider how the target group can change according to language – sometimes this change can be significant.
  • What should the text’s tonality be? Formal or playful? For a specialist audience or laymen? Adsy or informative? There are many different options, so it’s important to clearly communicate what you want. You should also mention whether you want British, American or some other form of English.
  • Do you have a terminology? A terminology is a list of specialist and company-specific terms and phrases along with their official translations. This helps translators do their jobs more quickly and helps maintain consistent tonality. If you have one, make sure you always provide it to translators. If you don’t have one, you can let steelecht create and maintain a new translation terminology on your behalf. It is a great tool for translators, but also for your colleagues within the company.

So now that you know how to find good translators, and help them deliver excellent translations. We wish you all the best!

By the way, did this text strike you as a translation? Well it is. And at the same time it isn’t. It’s a transcreation of a blog article by Anette John, my colleague. I’ve personalized it by adding the story about my previous job and other tidbits, but I’ve never actually been to a workshop by Isabel Bogdan. That was Anette.

Contact steelecht to learn more about transcreation (creative translation). Write us an e-mail at info@steelecht.com.

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