How can translators learn from others without taking a degree or class in translation?
This is a question I have struggled with over the years. However, I’ve noticed that over time, one of the biggest impacts to improving my translation has involved other people. This has been completely natural too! I have been learning from others without even realizing it.
Now I can consciously pick these methods out and share them. Here are a few things you can do to improve your translation by learning from others.
This six-part series is designed for all levels; from amateur to professionals, looking to hone their skills.
- Understanding Source Texts
- Improving English Writing
- Learning from Others
- Improving Self-Editing
- Working on Your Niche
- Improving Dialogue (Accents and Dialects)
(The above will be updated with the relevant web page links once each article has been released.)
Learning from Others
Learning from others involves a lot of self-reflection and self-criticism. This is easier said than done though. It’s like listening to a recording of yourself. It can be uncomfortable and off-putting, and you might risk hurting yourself with harsh self-criticism.
Comparing yourself to others isn’t easy either because, well, “they clearly better than you, right?” — Yes and no. The people you compare yourself to might appear better but only because they have more experience than you. (Everyone had to start somewhere!) That’s why you’re learning from them.
When conducting these exercises you need to remember to;
- Be kind to yourself.
- Learn to accept and apply criticism.
If you find these exercises are destroying your self-confidence and motivation then don’t force yourself to do them!
Anyway. Here are a few ways you can learn from others!
- Reading Translated Texts
- Translating Already Translated Texts
- Peer Reviews and Finding Mentors
Reading Translated Texts
I joined a book club at the start of this year that looks at translated novels and books on Japan. Reading a wider variety of translated texts has been such an eye opener in terms of different people’s styles and approaches to literary translation.
The English in one translated short story we read was so incredibly bad I wanted to scream. However, it was a great exercise in how not to translate a novel. (I know every translator has their own style, but this translation was full of grammar errors and unnatural English.)
Other texts have had incredibly natural reading translations with unique approaches to language issues. There have been times when words were not translated and, as this was in a book club, we were able to discuss why this might have been the case.
Having a forum where you can discuss the translations and text with others allows you to be extra reflective of your own work. It lets you ask questions like;
- What do I like/dislike about this translation choice?
- How would I have approached this?
- Can I use this technique in my own translation?
Reading translated texts also allows you to easily compare the source Japanese with the English translation. This will give you better insight into how the translator approached certain aspects of the text.
This is particularly useful for when you come across similar issues in your translation: you can pull on past knowledge and experience based on how other translators had tackled different issues.
The Miracles of the Namiya General Store
by Keigo Higashino and translated by Sam Bett
is a great example of a good translation. It’s also a great book!
Translating Already Translated Texts
Another exercise you can do is translate something that has already been translated.
You could take two approaches to this;
- Read the Japanese, then translate, then compare it to the English for the first time.
- Read the English, then the Japanese, then translate, then compare.
The first approach has you unconscious of other people’s translation choices, while with the second approach you will likely have the official English in your mind the whole time.
Both approaches will impact how you approach and think about the translation. They both have their advantages and disadvantages, too. Why not try both?
As for the text, you could translate;
- part of a novel/manga* you’re interested in. (Remember, one that has already been translated!)
- a past translation competition and compare it to the winner or other entrees.
(The Kurodahan translation competition is great for this as you can see everyone else’s entrees).
(*If you specialize in a different type of translation you can apply this to things like academic essays, technical documents, etc.)
For novels it’s best to keep this exercise short, just a few pages at a time. If you translate a whole novel, then compare it to the official translation, then you’re going to have a bad time – That is a LOT of text to translate and check! So break it down into chunks.
Translating a text from a past translation competition such as the Kurodahan is great because they post past entrees along with the original Japanese. You can try translating a little of the text then compare your translation to a whole group of people.
This really hammers home how everyone translates differently and helps you pick out what you like/don’t like from different approaches. Which then helps to shape your own style of translation.
Don’t forget to compare your translation to the official release! Again, great questions to ask yourself include:
- Did I interpret this differently and why?
- How did we approach the text differently?
- Where did we come to the same conclusion?
- If I translated this again would I do it differently?
There is no “better” or “worse” with this exercise because everyone translates/writes differently. This is merely an exercise to help you polish your own translation skills and style.
Peer Reviews and Finding Mentors
Finally, you can ask your peers to assess your translations.
Fellow translators and editors in particular are good. But, if you want professional feedback, I highly suggest offering to pay to them to read over your work and give feedback.
Just like most of these exercises, the translation you provide someone for feedback should be short. No one has the time or energy to look over pages and pages and pages of text with detailed feedback.
What you could do is combine this exercise with the above exercise. After you have translated a piece that has been translated in the past, and gone over it yourself with edits, ask a peer to review it.
One tricky thing is each peer is different. Some people might say “yeah, that’s good” while others will rip you a new one. Try and find someone who can provide detailed critical feedback, without telling you “you shouldn’t be working in translation”. (Yes, that happened to me.) – This is also why paying a professional for feedback is great because it allows them to be objective but not cruel.
Finding a mentor is slightly different (and a lot more difficult) than peer review. A mentor is someone with years of experience who is happy to not just provide feedback and constructive criticism, but guide you on your translation career. Mentoring tends to take a lot of time and energy so most experience translators aren’t will to unless they have a good relationship with you to begin with.
I recommend not trying to find a mentor and stick with peer reviews.
There are a few ways you can improve your translation skills by learning from others without needing to involve any other people.
Reading translated texts and being reflective can be a great way to pick up translation tricks and styles. While translating previously translated texts it’s important to be reflective of your own approach by comparing it to another’s translation.
You can then take this translation, or another translation or yours, to your peers for feedback.
Most importantly; be critical but kind to yourself!
And have fun!