Translation Technique: How to convert “very ordinary” translations into a high-value product.

Dr John Jamieson

There are those who claim that there is no shortage of customers who will pay top dollar for translations of very high quality. Chris Durban, an expatriate American translator living in Paris is a well-known proponent of the idea — her own eye-watering fees lend support to the theory. But, she cautions, to get those fees you not only have to be good... but very, very good [1].

So how can mere mortal translators, like most of us, up their game and produce better than ordinary translations?

I put the question to veteran translator Dr John Jamieson.

Paul: Many translators like to argue that civilisation could not have developed without the unique role played by translators. It is often argued that they conduct the delicate negotiation between languages and cultures which allows the dissemination of new knowledge and great discoveries. This role makes them important experts who, like doctors and accountants, deserve commensurate remuneration.

John: Indeed, translators, like mechanics and plumbers, require remuneration commensurate with their professional contribution to society.

However, if translation is a profession at all, it is fundamentally different from any other calling embellished with that name for the simple reason that our stock in trade — language — is part of the birthright of every human being. Just about everyone on the planet speaks one language, and many of us speak two or more, so any attempt to create a priesthood or profession from such a universal base is bound to be only partially successful.

In my view, claims by some professional translation associations and others that we play some elevated social role remind me of the mouse trying to inflate itself to the size of an elephant.

Paul: But you must agree that the job requires a great deal of professional skill?

John: Indeed. But in my observation, the quality of translation work produced by a great majority of “professional” translators is very ordinary — at best. A simple, but compelling illustration is to look at the quality of translations into English on websites such as Linguee which offer sample translations for professionals to emulate or to reuse. I'm always surprised at how often they display poor workmanship or an inadequate analysis of the meaning of the source text.

Paul: But isn't the popularity of medium to low grade translation a booming market? Witness the momentous impact of cheap (or free) digital competition: it's online and often instant. Do you see this as a threat to the profession?

John: It's a threat, of course — but maybe it's a greater threat to our less able colleagues than to translators with well-developed skills. Oddly enough, the digital tidal wave may carry with it the seeds of long-term opportunities for human translators.

Paul: That's a novel claim, John! Why is this?

John: Just as computers are becoming more like us, we are also growing more like them. As machines become more intelligent, we tend to become less willing and possibly less able to read complex information and understand it at a deep level. Just as shop attendants can no longer calculate change (because they don’t have to) and most of us are rapidly losing the art of handwriting, all of us increasingly expect to be able to absorb the information we read quickly and easily.

But at the same time, my observation is that people are losing the ability to write well enough to enable that to happen. And despite easy access to huge volumes of information, there is a decreasing ability to understand what it all really “means”. So, while we increasingly need information to be presented in a way that can be understood quickly and easily, there is a shortage of people who can write well enough to achieve this objective.

Now while that is a problem within any given language community, when the information needs to be translated from one language to another, the problem is inevitably compounded.

An ability to understand the source text at a deep level, and being a skilful writer in the target language is a characteristic of the most skilful translators — and here is an opportunity they may be able to seize. A market opportunity that less able human translators or the digital competition cannot address.

The standard of a great proportion of translations that are actually being produced from day to day is low and many translations on technical subjects are often well below the threshold of coherence. However, there are some techniques available that can make translations on difficult subjects look pretty good, and perform a very useful function.

Paul: Can you give me a practical example of such a technique?

John: Understanding a written text — and then creating an understandable version of the material in another language — really comes down to hearing and expressing the inherent voice of the original text. That is the inner meaning behind the words that the author is trying to convey. If you can “hear” the implied meaning behind the words, you can rapidly gain deeper insight into texts on even quite specialised subjects.

Paul: So, how can one quickly cut to the inner meaning of specialised text?

John: The trick is to work out where the stresses in a sentence lie — that is the emphases that would be heard if the original author were reading the text out aloud. The suprasegmentals (that is the pitch, tone, intonation and stress patterns of spoken language) carry a huge amount of information about the speaker's intended meaning — but this gets lost in written language.

Paul: Do you think that this information can actually be recovered from a written text?

John: Most certainly! You just have to “hear” the text. When a text is read aloud, there is little doubt about the author's intentions and implied meaning. If you can't hear it by silent reading, then reading it out loud can help recover where the author placed his emphases and thus the implied meaning of the text.

Paul: Can you give me a practical example of this technique?

John: Let’s take a sentence from a book on accounting — a subject that many translators shy away from as being too “specialised”. Here's one:

“The grouping of assets in a conventional Balance Sheet is also designed to highlight the current ratio, but when we remove this restriction we can consider assets according to their type.”

By listening to how this sentence might be spoken out loud, it is possible to reach a better understanding of the idea by hearing which elements are stressed. This helps identify which elements are the most important ones.

The context of this text is that the author thinks that accounting rules need a bit of a shake-up. In particular, he believes that too much importance is given to the “current ratio” — which he defines as the ratio of current assets (i.e. to be realised within one year) to current liabilities (i.e. payments to be met within that same period). He has begun his discussion with the liabilities side of the balance sheet, and in the above sentence he is moving on to the assets side. He is proposing an alternative approach that does not worry so much about the current ratio.

Once we know all this (and to do that we just have to read a couple of pages), we can mentally rephrase the sentence with some more finely chiselled contours of emphasis as follows:

“The way that ASSETS (as opposed to liabilities) are grouped in a CONVENTIONAL balance sheet (as opposed to my fresh new ideas) is ALSO designed to highlight the CURRENT RATIO (as we have already talked about with regard to liabilities). But if we FORGET about the current ratio (rather than giving it so much importance), we can structure assets more logically according to their TYPE (not the period within which they are to be realised).”

By discovering where the most important, or stressed elements in the sentence are, we can then refine the meaning by working out what they are opposed to.

I only translate into English, but for the sake of this example, in French I would say something like:

“Dans le bilan conventionnel, les actifs, eux aussi, sont regroupés surtout pour metre en valeur le coefficient de liquidité, Mais si on s’éloigne un peu de cette perspective il devient possible de considérer les actifs en fonction de leur nature, plûtot que leur échéance.”

In contrast, Google gave me this:

«Le regroupement des actifs dans le bilan conventionnel est également conçu pour metre en evidence le rapport actuel, mais quand on enlève cette restriction on peut considérer actifs en fonction de leur type.»

Google doesn’t know what “current ratio” means, but even if that term had been correct, I don’t believe this French would have carried much meaning. My text probably has its faults, but I'm sure that the meaning is crystal clear.

The capitalised words in my rephrased English would be stressed if spoken aloud. The exceptions may be “conventional” and “current ratio” — but these ideas are important because the author has already talked about them, whereas the other capitalised words are important because they are “new” elements of the argument.

Paul: How would you evaluate this sort of technique against subject area specialisation?

John: Even subject specialists who do not hear the inner meaning of the text and are unable to follow the author's line of reasoning are not going to make a good translation.

The point I want to make is that even if we are not a subject expert, we can better handle complex texts and get to the implied meaning by working out where the stresses fall as if the text had been spoken aloud and which repeated terms are important.

By recovering the underlying linguistic “music” of the text, the author's implied meaning will just jump out at you. I guarantee that this will give you a significant head start to producing a good translation of specialist texts — even when you are not a subject specialist.

I believe we should be applying such sensible techniques to make ourselves better practitioners. This puts us ahead in the game.

Paul: Thanks, John.



[1] "To work in the premium segment, translators need to have excellent writing skills (“better than those of 98% of the general population”), and they need to specialise." Jayne Fox,

#JohnJamieson #PaulSulzberger #Opinion

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