The translation process is fundamental to translation but it’s often overlooked when people talk about translation. Everyone assumes everyone else knows it, so doesn’t feel the need to talk about it. As a result, the vast majority of translators have learned their own methods for translating, normally through a lot of trial and error.
As a general rule it’s best to put as much work into prep and polish as the act of translation itself. (Even the prep and polish is “translation”, after all.)
This isn’t to say you have to use the following translation process verbatim. It might not suit how you work. But I do hope you find something useful and adopt elements into your own translation process.
Note: This is written from the perspective of Japanese to English entertainment translation, but can be applied to any language and any field.
Step 0: Review the Job
The first step in translation should always be to review the job. This means check the translation request, the character/word count, the deadline, the type of text, the subject.
Questions you should be able to ask and answer yourself before accepting the request are,
Is it feasible? Can I fit this comfortably into my schedule?
If you don’t think you can fit it in your schedule (without working overtime and on the weekends), negotiate for a later deadline.
If you cannot fit it in your schedule at all, explain when you’re next free and double check when PM really needs it by (it might not be as urgent as you think—never assume!).
Can I do this? Is this within my capability?
If the translation request isn’t something you feel comfortable translating (whether the subject matter or the difficulty) then it’s fine to turn the project down.
If you cannot fit the project into your schedule, or don’t think you can handle the task, then you can always recommend other translators for the job! This makes you look good to the PM and to your fellow translators.
Step 1: Review Materials and Prepare Reference Files
Read any style guides, dictionaries, other references
Make a note of any important points in the style guide, especially ones about punctuation.
If the translation is from a series you’ve worked on before, read through some of your previous translations (or the final book) to remind yourself of character voices and writing style.
Prepare your own files
If you’re a creative translator then you want a glossary/term base/ terminology bible (whatever you want to call it) for every single project/series you work on.
If you’ve never made one before, see Katrina Leonoudakis’s article on creating term bases, Terminology Management 101; Yes, You Need a Term Base!
If it’s a new series then make a new glossary, if it’s for a series then review the series glossary.
Step 2: Read the Source Text
Read the source before you start translation. I cannot stress enough how important this is.
Reading the source first is important for;
Understanding the story as a whole
Japanese is high a context language, authors assume the reader will pick up what they’re putting down, without explicitly stating it.
But even if you’re not working from Japanese, authors might also hint to something that happens later in the story, or reference other things in the story, or drip cultural and historic references.
Reading the whole story before you start gives you a better understanding of the overall context and reduce the chance of misunderstanding things when you start translating.
Forming character voices
Character voice is incredibly important in creative translation. Whether it’s spoken dialogue or the narrator, picking the right voice is a lot easier when you know the character’s and story really well. Which can be best achieved through, reading the whole story.
(Do not skip this step! Just look at this article from the New York Times where literary translator Sophie Hughes talks about how she was able to capture character voice and intent through pre-reading the novels she translates.)
Planning your research
A pre-read also allows you start thinking what kinds of things you might need to research. If the topic is on something technical or real world based, you might want to start looking up things asap to help you understand the context better.
Step 3: Translate (and Research!) (Draft 1)
Now it’s time to translate!
Depending on the project and how you work best you might want to translate the whole text from start to finish before moving onto the next step, or translate a chapter/section, then re-read and edit it while you translate the next section. (Not at the same time, obviously. You might like to translate in the morning and edit in the afternoon, for example.)
Depending on how long the translation is and how long it takes you might want to do a re-read of chapters/sections before you start translating for the day.
The translation doesn’t need to be perfect in draft one (that’s what other drafts are for). If you’re not sure about the meaning of the source or the wording of the translation, highlight the section and add a comment or note to help future you know why you highlighted that and where to find the line in the source.
Don’t forget research!
Don’t forget to research things as you translate. Double check everything: terms, names, nouns, turns of phrases, etc. Especially anything that might be related to a specific subject, period in time, or a cultural reference.
Triple check dictionaries (both bilingual, and mon-lingual), and always take advantage of Google images for terms in your source and target language (so you know what kind of image certain words convey).
And don’t forget to add anything you find to your glossary and reference documents. (Including the URL links for future reference!)
I outline this more in Never Assume – The Importance of Research in Translation.
The long and short of it is, do your research.
Step 4: Source and Translation Re-read (Draft 2)
The next step with draft two, is to go over the source and your translation. Instead of reading them line-by-line, read them paragraph-by-paragraph or page-by-page. Re-compare the source to the translation to make sure you didn’t miss anything. This is also when you can go back over those sections you highlighted in draft one.
Checking over the source and translation is a key part as it’s a good chance to double check you haven’t missed, misunderstood, or mis-translated anything. It also helps with the three core pillars of editing: accuracy, clarity, and brevity.
Step 5: Edit (Draft 3+)
The editing stage is when you check the text for accuracy, clarity, and brevity.
Is it accurate?
I don’t mean “do the exact words match the source?”, but is the overall meaning, intent, and characterization accurately reflected in the translation?
Are the tone and important terminology consistent? (This is why it’s important to keep a glossary, so you can make sure names and terms are consistent!)
Is it clear?
Is the translated text clear for the reader to understand what’s going on?
If you have an untranslated word (e.g. bento), is the meaning still clear from context? Should you add something to make it clearer (e.g. bento lunch box)?
Do sentences, scenes, and events make sense?
Is it brief?
Are sentences too long?
Do you have redundant wording (normally adverbs) or passive voice?
This might take you multiple drafts depending on how you like to work. The second draft should have picked up most of the accuracy issues, but it can’t hurt to double check parts you’re unsure of.
The golden rule is always—if your guts says something’s not right, listen to it and double check!
Step 6: Proofread (Final Draft)
The proofreading stage is always the final polish where you pick up on last-minute English errors.
Spellcheck is always a must, but text-to-speech tools, printing the text and re-reading, reading the text aloud, etc., can help you pick up on spelling mistakes spellcheck didn’t catch (like spelling “was” as “way”).
I love using text-to-speech because my brain will often correct an error when I re-read it, but my ear will pick up on a robot saying it wrong.
I go over editing and proofreading in a lot more detail in Effective Self-Editing for Terrific Translations.
Step 7: Submission
Final submission of the translation should be done to the specifications requested by the client.
You should also include your final submission with a summary of the project details in the email (when it was requested, the final page/character count, how much per page/character and total) and your invoice. It’s always good to get into the habit of sending the invoice with the final deliverable!
Step 8 (maybe?): Feedback and Edits
Sometimes you might get feedback on a project. This might come in the form of edits to your work that need you to check over, or some tweaks to the source text that mean the translation needs editing too (very common in game translation).
You (sadly) rarely get constructive feedback on your translation. If an editor or project manager is kind enough to give feedback to help you improve your work, take it!
By the way, always charge by the hour for additional editing tasks. And if there’s additional translation, make sure you invoice those too!
That’s it! It might seem like a lot of work and a lot of time and that’s because it is. High quality creative translation for media shouldn’t be rushed if a client wants it done well.
If you’re being paid $0.03 per moji and asked to get a 300-page novel done in 4 weeks, then feel free to skip a few steps. A client should expect to what they pay for.
But if you want to create high quality translation then I highly suggest the above process. Or at least a version that works for you!