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Making a Translation “Snappy”

by  Kristine M. Trammell

I've heard literacy specialists denounce the translation of stories and other texts from one language to another and state rather proudly that they only promote original, creative writing. While it is essential to promote first language authors and create authentic cultural literature, many good reasons exist to translate other materials, such as multiplying the quantity of literature available in minority languages.

Of course, there are also valid concerns about translating text from one language and culture to another. A translated text can be more challenging to read than prose written naturally. Without care, translated texts can sound awkward and lack the natural discourse style to make them not only easier to read, but interesting, too. The cultural context, descriptions, illustrations, and content can be inappropriate for the readers. Sometimes facts might be mistranslated. Therefore, care needs to be taken to ensure that the translation is accurate, clear, and natural. The following tips can help make translations snappy (lively, interesting, stimulating, or relevant).

  • Analyze the way this language and culture tell stories and other genres. Use those discourse forms when translating from another language.
  • Be ready to write several drafts and have each checked by (other) native speakers. Remember the wise saying by Robert Graves, "There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting."
  • Read the text to be translated several times before you begin, making sure you fully understand it yourself.
  • Do not translate word for word. Hear the words in your mind and let your writing flow from your thoughts.
  • The goal is not to merely translate what someone else has written, but to adapt the text to speak to your readers in their language.
  • If you get stuck trying to think of a word or phrase's meaning, take a break and try again later.
  • Read your translation aloud. You should be able to read it easily and naturally.
  • When translating dialogue, envision the character and write the words as they would be spoken by that personality.
  • Translating humor is challenging. Try reading the text aloud to others to discover if they find it humorous or not. If not, what might you do to make it so?
  • Rhyming and intonation do not translate well. Modify the text to express the ideas using the literary styles of the target language.
  • Before printing large quantities of the book, field-test the text and the illustrations with a variety of native speakers to check for understanding, ease of reading, naturalness, and interest.
  • Finally, be sure the title is snappy (attention-getting) in your language.