11 Top Translation Tips for EFL Learners
About the Author
Stephanie Allen read Classics and English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and is currently researching a PhD in Early Modern Academic Drama at the University of Fribourg.
As anyone who’s ever studied Latin will know, written translation into a language is often one of the most difficult and daunting exercises possible: it requires both a deep understanding of the language’s grammatical structure, and a sense of comfort and ease with its vocabulary.
But if you haven’t got those, don’t worry: just read our guide to written translation and become an instant bilingual superstar.
1. Read through your piece carefully before you start
Before you start translating anything, make sure you read through the piece a couple of times and understand first, exactly what the writer is trying to say, and second, exactly how they’re trying to say it. Look at it almost as though you were writing a literary commentary on it: pay attention to every single word and phrase: to the purpose of your text, its register (style and pitch), and the sort of stylistic tricks the writer uses. Don’t be afraid to scrawl all over your piece: make notes on anything that pops out at you as noteworthy, and highlight anything you think might be difficult to translate. Finally, if you’re able to, research any idiomatic phrases or even just ideas in the passage that you don’t fully understand.
2. Get your tools ready
A good bilingual dictionary is an essential tool for any translation. Even if you feel you know a direct translation of an important word, look it up and consider all the options, and think about which best matches the sense and style of the original.
Interestingly, the English language contains far more words than any of the Romance languages (for example French, Italian or Spanish) or the Germanic languages (like German or Dutch). The reason for this is to do with England’s Medieval history. Originally, English was a Germanic language, close to German and Dutch, and for that reason it shares much of its basic grammatical structure with those languages. But after it was conquered by the French in 1066, Norman French became the language of the rulers, and hugely influenced the native language. Similarly, many words from Latin, the language of the Church and scholarship, filtered into vernacular English. So modern English is shaped by those three influences, and frequently, will contain synonymous words that are identifiably from each. For example, English has a multitude of ways of expressing the emotion of anger; out of these, ‘anger’ and ‘wrath’ can be traced back to Old Norse and Germanic stems, but ‘ire’ and ‘rage’ are from the Latin words ira and rabies. All this influences your job as a translator because it makes it harder simply to equate words between languages: there will often be many different options to choose from in English, and it’s your task to make sure you pick the best. If you learn any new words in the process, write them down and store them in your vocabulary for later.
Similarly, before translating make sure you’ve got all the grammatical materials you need to ensure technical accuracy, making sure you get things like verb forms and endings, or syntax, spot on. Obviously, a good understanding of grammatical rules is essential for translation, but you can bolster your own knowledge with written tables, lists, and books. Eliminate little mistakes by checking everything carefully: in a really polished and good piece of work, spelling or grammar errors stand out a mile and mar the whole piece, so make sure you correct these so that your translation reads like a dream!
Choose your words carefully
3. Translate the meaning, not the words
Some of the most comical translation mishaps occur when people offer literal renditions of the words in a sentence rather than its meaning – even when those words don’t make sense in the language they’re translating into. For example, if a Spanish native speaker said to you: ‘To another dog with that bone!’ you could be forgiven for thinking they had gone completely (barking) mad. Of course, all they’d really be doing is translating the Spanish phrase ‘A otro perro con ese hueso’- a figurative way of saying ‘you’re pulling my leg’ – literally: but the sense of the phrase is lost in translation (if you’ll excuse the second terrible pun in a row). Here are some other phrases from around the world (Spanish has hundreds of them) that produce simultaneously mystifying and hilarious results when translated into English:
Avoir le cafard
Literally, to ‘have the cockroach’ in French – this phrase means to be down in the dumps.
Es ist mir wurst
‘That’s sausage to me’ – a German phrase meaning that the speaker doesn’t care.
Yo te conozco bacalao, aunque vengas disfrazado.
‘I know you, codfish, even though you wear a disguise’. Another madly figurative Spanish phrase, meaning something along the lines of ‘I know your game!’
C’est la fin des haricots
‘That’s the end of the beans’ – or in English, ‘that’s curtains for us’.
Un burro frota a otro burro
‘A donkey rubs another donkey’, meaning that people of similar character get along well together.
Éramos pocos y parió la abuela.
‘There were only a few of us, and then grandma gave birth’. No, a miracle hasn’t happened – this means ‘I had a few problems, and then this came along’, similar to the English ‘it never rains but it pours.’
And of course, there are non-idiomatic examples too. The literal translation of the Spanish word obtener is ‘to obtain’ – but often, ‘to get’ is just as good and will sound less stuffy.
All this might at first seem to be at odds with my fourth translation top tip:
4. … But maintain stylistic techniques
Stylistic techniques aren’t just for decoration; they’re an important way that writers create meaning. So where possible, reproduce the surface of the language of any passage you translate. When reading a piece before translation, read through it and think about the effects the author uses: note down any sayings, colloquialisms, highly-stylised sentences, verbal rhymes or rhythms. Of course, the frequency and use of these techniques will vary according to the type of text you’re working with: a poem in verse, for example, might be more elaborate than a formal letter. See if you can find subtle ways to render these effects in English: the most elegant translations imitate style without sacrificing the naturalness of their version. To return to my example above, you might translate the Spanish phrase ‘A otro perro con ese hueso’ as ‘You’re pulling my leg’, maintaining both the sense of the phrase and its distinct identity as a saying. And on a different, but again related, note:
5. Be faithful to the register of the original
It sounds obvious but this is an area where students often slip up. If you’re translating a text that sounds formal and clipped, mimic its tone and register: use appropriate words and a similar style. If you’re translating something looser and more colloquial, equally, find words that capture the feel of the original.
6. Know your audience
A final consideration when choosing your words is the audience your work is aimed at. Of course, if you’re translating a piece for a language class, your audience will contain precisely one person: your teacher. But it’s nonetheless a useful exercise to think about who the original document is intended for, and moderate your language accordingly: if it’s a poster aimed at teenagers, you’re likely to choose different English words than in translating a newspaper article for adults.
7. Don’t get too bogged down in details
In setting you written translations to do, your teacher is assuming a certain level of fluency in English: they’ve decided that you understand (and to a certain extent know by heart) the grammatical basics of the language, and you’re able to recall the rules and some vocabulary quickly. Of course, it’s important to show that you do indeed possess those skills by getting your vocabulary and grammar right as detailed above, but remember that the exercise has been set to test you and your knowledge, rather than what’s in your textbook – and have the confidence to follow your intuition. Don’t over-complicate the exercise by becoming so obsessed with detail that everything takes too long and becomes confusing; make sure the end result looks natural and easy rather than laboured.
8. Take your time
With the pressure of a whole page, or even pages, of words to translate into a new language, it can be tempting to race through and try to get as much on paper as quickly as possible. It’s a slightly different exercise, but I often make the mistake of starting translations from Latin like this: covering entire pages in rough scrawl, and missing out entire phrases or words that look too tricky to bother with. Try to resist this impulse: having less-than-perfect work on the page will create a sense of anxiety that there’s still loads to be done, and later on, when you’re dying to clock off for the day and think about anything but words, you’re likely to forget the little nuances you noticed earlier, and put sentences into your final draft that were only meant to be placeholders. Instead, take a deep breath, go slowly, and try to think about every single word in a slow, methodical, and even creative way. It’s better to have four really solid sentences written than three pages that need to be redone.
9. Reread, and make it flow
After you’ve produced your first draft, take a break – the longer, the better. If you’ve got enough time to leave the piece, and return to it the next day, then that’s ideal. When you come back to your translation, read it through looking for little slips in spelling and grammar, but also with an eye to style. Is it elegant, and does it flow? Are the register and tone consistent throughout? Does it capture both the meaning and the spirit of the original? If you can, get a native speaker to read it for you and point out what needs work. Look out for anything awkwardly phrased or messy, or anything you gave up on in despair the day before: now that you’ve got a complete draft, and the pressure of finishing the whole piece is off, it’s the time to work on the little details.
10. … And read it one more time
Have another break, and then read your work one more time after you’ve fiddled with it, just to check you haven’t made any silly errors in changing things.
11. Learn from your mistakes
Nobody is great at written translation the first time they attempt it: it’s one of the hardest parts of language learning, requiring that you’re comfortable enough with the grammar of the language you’re translating into, and that you have a wide enough vocabulary to get the basics down on the page. What’s more, it’s a completely new and slightly false exercise, requiring a different set of skills than listening to or reading a language, and far more precision and sophistication than speaking. So don’t be disheartened if you don’t get it right the first time: practice really does make perfect, and each time you attempt a written translation, even if the exercise drives you mad, you’ll learn many new words and reinforce your understanding of English grammar, as well as little things like spelling.
If you labour for hours over your translation, and you’re still not happy with the result, make sure you make that work count anyway: learn the meaning and spelling of any new words that you’ve found in a dictionary or online, and learn and practise the grammatical rules you found tricky this time around.