JBI Studios' Blog on Voice-Over, Dubbing, and Multimedia Localization.

Tips for Being a Translator and Writing for Translations

Translating from one language to another is a complex art, one that artificial intelligence is still trying to catch up to. Translation takes much more than spoken fluency in a language, it requires specific knowledge, skills, and guidelines. Also, if one is writing English text to be translated, there are ways to write to avoid translation mistakes or ambiguity. In this blog, we will discuss the main skills a translator should have to be successful and tips for writing text for translations.

[Average read time: 3 minutes]

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Skills for Being A Successful Translator 

To be a translator, one needs near native fluency of the language one is translating from and native fluency in the language one is translating to. It takes years of study in order to understand the historical and cultural nuances of a foreign language and how it translates into your native language.

One also needs excellent writing skills. Writing requires a deep understanding of tone, style, and an extensive vocabulary so that one can find the right words to convey the meaning successfully. No two translators will translate the same text identically, just as no two writers will have the same writing style.

However, what makes one translator stand out is their ability to translate the meaning of the source text with clarity, while matching the tone and style of the original. This is incredibly difficult for a non-native speaker, which is why a translator needs native fluency in the target language they're translating into.

Translators should also have in-depth knowledge of the subject matter. Translating medical or law journals into another language requires the usage of technical, professional terms that are outside the scope of everyday speech. For example, many native English speakers have no idea what seborrheic dermatitis is. However, dermatologists and medical translators would be familiar with the term (it's a skin condition). That's why there are translators that specialize in specific fields (medicine, law, sports, entertainment, etc...) that know the terminology of that subject matter. Even then, the focus of one translation project can vary greatly from the next, so research is usually still needed to provide an accurate, excellent translation.


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Watch Out for Noun Strings, Phrasal Verbs, and Humor When Your Text Will Be Translated

Even if the translator has all the above traits, if the source English text is written poorly and is not clear, then the translation will be difficult and may result in a lower quality text. Here are tips for writing text for translations.

Avoid using noun strings and phrasal verbs. Noun strings are when three or more nouns are written in succession and can lead to readability issues and confusion. Example: Instead of using the noun string "South China Sea aquatic research procedures development" it would be easier to read and to translate "Developing procedures for aquatic research in the South China Sea." 

Phrasal verbs can also cause translation issues. Phrasal verbs are idiomatic phrases that contain a verb and another grammatical element. For clarity, it is better to use a single verb than a phrasal verb, particularly for formal topics. For example, instead of using the phrasal verb (here in bold), "He didn't know when he'd get round to submitting the forms," it would be more clear to use the modal verb (in red), "He didn't know when he could submit the forms." 

Another place where things might get lost in translation is humor. It's recommended not to add a funny writing style for text that is to be translated, especially if it gets in the way of clarity. Comedic writing uses cultural references and idiomatic language that can easily lead to inaccuracies.

However, that's not to say humor has no place in writing for translation. For instance, if one is writing a comedic, satirical piece, be sure to let the translators know and also provide guidelines and explanations for certain jokes. There's rarely a one-to-one substitution for translating humor, but if the translator knows the meaning and intention of a joke, it will be much easier for the translator to find a similar joke in the target language. Sometimes, however, one might have to make the choice between being funny and being clear. Clarity wins out.


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Active vs Passive Voice

Another important tip in writing clearly for translation is using the active voice instead of the passive voice. For example, compare the two sample sentences below:

1. The translator translated the Greek text into Mandarin Chinese.

2. The Greek text was translated to Mandarin Chinese by the translator.

Which sentence is easier to read? Sentence 1 is an an example of active voice where the subject (the translator) performs the action (translate). The second sentence is in the passive voice where the subject (the Greek text) receives the action (translate). Passive voice sentences are often longer and tend to be more vague or difficult to read, as in the above example, which can lead to comprehension issues.

To write in active voice, avoid using the "by" phrase and move the subject closer to the start of the sentence.

However, the passive voice can be used in certain situations such as, but not limited to:

 1. To emphasize the action, not the subject: The guilty verdict was given by the jury.

2. The subject is not known or not given: The turkey was pardoned.

...in which case, the translator may use a similar passive voice in their translation.

The use of active vs passive voice is to make sure the writing for translation is short and clear so that the translation is as well. Whenever writing for translations, make sure the text is concise and easy to understand. This is incredibly important for corporate video voice-over so that the words have more of an impact on the audience.


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A translator should have excellent language and writing skills as well as in-depth subject matter knowledge. When writing for translation, the general rule is to keep the writing short and easy to read. To do this: avoid noun strings and phrasal verbs. When writing humor, be sure to provide notes and explanations. The active voice is preferable to the passive voice for clarity. Clear writing, and thus clear translation, is especially important when writing for a video with subtitles and captions. Subtitles and captions are visible on screen briefly and the viewer only has a split second to perceive the meaning.

Neural machine translation (NMT) is still having issues incorporating the above mentioned skills and knowledge. Some translators include NMT in their toolbox, but they know that for now, humans still have the final say when it comes to translation.

Want to make sure your video is translated, captioned, and subtitled correctly? Click below for key captioning and subtitling terms you should know.

Click to download JBI Studio's Glossary of Captioning & Subtitling Terms.

Topics: Voice-over & Audio Video Translation translation

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