Avoiding translationese

Translationese. A sorry language. It makes a comeback when a translator’s idea of revision is one quick read-over.

We’ve all seen stiff-sounding translations by native speakers. At cause: a) the translator accepted a ridiculous deadline and/or four peanuts per word and had no time to work up a sweat. Or b) the translator may have excellent source language skills but is a poor writer.

First draft versus sixth draft

As for myself, my first drafts are shameful. I tend to grab the closest words at my brain’s disposal.

I then make tea. The process of re-working and revising requires at least one hot cup an hour as I attempt to make something really English.

Here’s how I might revise my work (while keeping the context and the author’s voice in mind):

French term                  First grab                           What about… ?

compétences                            skills                                                 skill set

influence                                    influence                                        clout

critiques                                     criticism                                         flak

tentative                                    attempt                                           foray

vol                                                robbery                                           heist

projet personnel                    personal project                          pet project

tâche difficile                          difficult task                                   tall order

publicité                                    publicity                                          plug

évaluer                                      to evaluate                                      to vet

embellir                                    to beautify                                      to spruce up

montrer                                    to show                                            to showcase

ignorer                                      to ignore                                          to tune out

partager                                   to share                                             to divvy up

banal                                         ordinary                                            run-of-the-mill

How do you avoid “translationese”?


8 responses to “Avoiding translationese

  1. Putting aside that “context” is a translator’s favorite word and that we must consider the target audience, we could have some fun over a cup of tea splitting hairs on some of these choices! Would flak fly for non native English speakers? Do evaluate (can be a + or – result) and vet (expert approval) have the same nuance? And while ignore can apply to all senses, tune out is clearly auditory.
    How do I fight translationese – or translationitis? Its worst symptom, often, is in the style and rhythm – the fine line between respecting the author’s voice and song and ensuring that it remains foot-tapping in another language. Reading aloud source and target text often helps to catch that musical dissonance.

  2. Patricia,
    I would never have thought of reading a source text out loud or tapping my foot to my work. Thanks!

  3. Catherine,
    I don’t know whether that technique will work for you, but I’m kinesthetic/aural, so when I want to check whether it “works”, I either need to feel it or hear it. And to my ears, language *is* music — it needs rhythm, flow, crescendo!

  4. Great list! I think I’ll keep this and the tea kettle handy for revisions of my current project. I usually keep myself to a cup a day, but I think your method may be superior for this one.

  5. Thanks to both Patricia and Jenn. Have a good weekend!

  6. Hello Catherine,
    I love your list too. Like Patricia, I tend to read my translations out loud. This is my actor’s training coming out. I’m so used to cold reading other people’s texts for the mic that it helps me to spot the dissonances Patricia mentions. Maybe that’s why.
    I’ve also learned over time to ask for reasonable deadlines. I’ve gained in efficiency and I’ve learned to leave my drafts to rest 24 hours or so before redrafting them. I now rarely send off a text witout having slept on it. I still need to find a way of developing my (very faulty) proofreader’s eye. How do you do it ?

    • Cherif,
      Being able to sleep on a translation is ideal. Proper deadlines make this possible.
      As for proofreading, I sometimes change fonts and font sizes to freshen up the writing. Even better, I ask a colleague to take a quick look.
      Another translator once pointed out, in private, that I had a spelling mistake in my LinkedIn profile. I was appalled and quickly deleted the culprit. Now when I spot typos in translation blogs, I privately let the blogger know.

  7. Changing font! What a simple, practical and perfect way of seeing with fresh eyes something that’s no longer visible to you.
    Shame we can’t do this to other aspects of our lives though the image is worth carrying through and adapting.
    I also like the idea that the technology we now work with helps us view and treat our work as living. We can always go back to it and tweak. Made a mistake on LinkedIn? Just modify and post… Thank god for the kindness of strangers and the Blanche Dubois in us all!

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