The Art of Translation

One of the trickiest kinds of writing imaginable is translation. For while there is a creative element in that the translator must decide the exact wording involved, it is more restricting in that they are still someone else’s words he is working with. And then of course there’s the fact that one has to know the original language of the work in the first place! Here I shall attempt to summarize the main points of translating works, on the off chance that you end up in such a line of work.

Translation is a job that, first and foremost, requires intimate knowledge of at least two languages–that of the original and the target tongue. Therefore it’s safe to say that until you can read works in a second language with at least 80% comprehension (and ideally much higher), translation of any sizeable works probably shouldn’t be attempted. That’s not to say you can’t consult a dictionary from time to time. In fact, however solid your general knowledge of a language may be, it never hurts to have a good one- or even two-way dictionary on hand.

The next most important thing to have is time, and lots of it. Translation is a skill that, like any other, improves with practice, and so you can expect to get a little faster as you go along. But for the most part (and especially in the beginning), it’s going to take a while. As an illustration, the book pictured above is written in Danish: a language I’ve studied for almost ten years. Nevertheless, a single passage of just over one page in length took me a total of approximately three hours to translate–and that was just the semi-literal translation!

Now, as far as the process itself goes, there are as usual many ways to go about it. However, in my experience (limited though it may be), the following 2-step method works well enough:

1) Make a literal line-by-line. By this I mean take a segment (a sentence or lengthy clause, for instance) and translate just the words. If you need to consult a dictionary to choose just the right sense of a particular word, go right ahead. It can be tempting to just go ahead and correct the grammar at this point as well, but it’s better to just go for the literal right now. Sometimes it can’t be helped, I know: Certain phrases aren’t going to make sense unless you put the words in order. But try to keep editing to a minimum until you’ve got the whole passage down. I’ll warn you now, this is the most tedious and time-consuming stage, but it’ll save a lot of trouble in the second step.

2) Take your literal translation and put it into terms that a reader of your target language will understand and perceive as natural. If your literal translation comes out as “So, called he him over to the side,” for example, changing it to “So, he called him over to his side” would probably be advisable to your average English reader.

The market for translations can be very limited indeed, and even more so for the more obscure languages. Most places that accept them tend to be academic publications that don’t pay a whole lot (if anything), and only take small works like poems or short stories at best. Translating whole books is a very rare occupation indeed, though one that can be very lucrative if you find a market that’s actually interested in your chosen work. Of course, it helps if you’ve built up a reputation as a decent translator first, and one of the best ways to do this is through shorter works (see “Building Your Writing Credentials“).

So, as you can see, translation work can be darned tough, and with very little reward in many cases. Because of this, translating isn’t for everyone. But even if you don’t intend to make a career of it, as a writer it can be a fun mental exercise in word usage and a great way to expand your vocabulary. Even just reading foreign works without any intent to do a formal translation can be a rewarding experience. Therefore, I do recommend trying it at least once if you’ve even the mildest inclination. You may even grow to like it, but you’ll never know unless you give it a try!

Published by J. S. Allen

J. S. Allen is a writer, linguist, historian, and nature-lover from Kansas City, Missouri. He is the author of the young adult series Sauragia and Knights of Aralia, as well as the 'Woodland Tales' anthology for children. Several of his shorter works have also appeared in various print and online periodicals over the years. In between writing and publishing, he likes to draw, spend long hours outdoors, and read. His favorite authors include M. I. McAllister, Brian Jacques, and Alexandre Dumas.

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