by Kristin Fehlauer
What went wrong?
The spokesperson for company ABC is relieved that the translated press release takes him just a few minutes to read through before it’s ready to go.
What went right?
I think the answer to both questions lies in how translators go about their work. I’ve come up with three examples of best practice that I believe should apply when translating, editing, and proofreading corporate communications. To a certain extent, they may be a bit difficult to apply if you’re a freelancer working for a lot of different clients on your own, but the general principle is useful.
It’s easy to get bogged down in terminology, particularly for highly technical or scientific texts. The translator winds up caught in a tedious loop of looking up words in online dictionaries, past translations, and other resources. He or she no longer reads sentences or concepts, but just a chain of discrete terms. This technique results in a fragmented and disjointed translation that is extremely unpleasant to read.
Sure, some things have to be looked up – it’s a myth that translators don’t ever need dictionaries. Sometimes you need to jog your memory, or find a suitable synonym to avoid being repetitiously redundant ;). But a good translator will be able to look behind and beyond the words.
I’m going to illustrate this with an example from interpreting. How interpreting differs from translating is of course another story, but stay with me here. Let’s take two interpreters who are booked for a conference on air conditioning systems. When they arrive, however, they’re informed that the topic has changed to something completely different; say, artificial heart valves. One interpreter panics: I’m not prepared, I know absolutely nothing about artificial heart valves, I don’t know any of the vocabulary, and so on. The other remains calm: I’m not prepared, but I’ll start by thinking about everything I know about the heart, about the circulatory system, about valves. Which one do you think performs better?
In a way, the terminology is secondary – as long as the interpreter is familiar with the overall concept, he or she can explain what is meant. The same holds true in translation: words can always be looked up and verified, but if you don’t understand what they’re being used to convey, you’re sunk.
Certainly the best way to find approved terminology and secure a view of the wider context is by researching translations done for a client in the past. I personally use a tool that allows me to access and research archived translation material instantly in its original full context. It’s different from standard translation memory or CAT tools, which aim primarily at automating the translation process. While those tools can be really beneficial if you’re working on standard and more repetitive text, they make it extremely difficult for me to authenticate and review results presented line-by-line by the system. It’s best if you can find a way to store and find past jobs, which not only boosts your productivity but also ensures consistency and continuity. Obviously, your choice of tool will depend on what sort of work you do regularly: technical documentation or corporate comms, for a handful of steady clients or a larger pool of less frequent callers.
Look inward and out
Working with a permanent team of colleagues has its advantages. I know a lot of freelancers share offices for the same reason. In my team, we talk to each other and to the client. Obviously, we don’t want to pester the client with every minor question, so first we do our research. We take the usual online sources (dictionaries, Wikipedia, Linguee) as a starting point. Once we’ve found a viable solution from a legitimate source, we turn to the web at large. Has anyone else used this term, this phrase, this particular collocation? Do major recognized media outlets use it in their non-translated content? The client’s own website can of course be an enormous help here, especially if it has pages in both the source and target languages. Bonus points if you can toggle directly between the two! It’s frustrating to find the relevant subpage and then have to go through the whole search process again in the other language.
In addition to, or sometimes as part of, this extensive background research, we also talk to each other. Fortunately my office has native speakers of both English and German, including a couple who grew up speaking both, so I can ask them how they understand a particular point.
If after all of this, the meaning of a particular phrase or passage is still unclear, then it’s time to call the client.
Aside from the research for a specific text, I also read up on topics that I think are relevant to what my clients do. I read not only to keep up with the news, but also to catch new words used for new things. Since I work solely on corporate communications, I’m part of my clients’ dialogue with the outside world, so I think it’s a good idea to stay on top of developments in the technologies and markets in which they do business.
Because I understand their industries, their preferred wording and their communication goals, the companies I produce work for are more ABC than XYZ. They don’t have to spend valuable time reworking my translation because I’ve written it from precisely their perspective. And I get the satisfaction of knowing that what I write is truly appreciated.