The translation process

En français

In this post, I attempt to describe the translation process and show that if the quality of a good translation is its invisibility (which may seem magical), the work to get this result is not magical at all.

I have translated all kind of documents, some interesting, other much less! But not matter if a text is well-written or not, captivating or not, the process stays the same, this is why I enjoy translating them all. Ok, I admits that if I could translate only children’s book or novels I would be delighted. But whether I am translating a benefit package for employees, a car seat description or a children story, the ultimate goal is the same: offering an excellent French version, if not a better one than the original, and the process to do that is the same. So, what is it?

First step: reading the original text. During this reading, I identify the difficulties, whether it is technical terms which requires some research, idiomatic expressions that may represent a challenge, the adaptation of a style, the consistency of the terminology to use, etc. My brain starts to get into gear, it is like warming up before running. It is a very active reading which requires an analytical mind and a great ability to concentrate. I believe this is why translator are so good at finding inconsistencies or errors in the original text.

Unfortunately, with deadline getting continuously shorter in the world of translation, this first step is often skipped. It is always possible to translate right away without reading the whole document and analysing it as you translate. However, reading the text first avoids going back and forth and meanings and understanding errors while translating. The first draft is usually better from my experience when the text is read first.

Second step: first translation draft. Translating is a slow operation, just like writing. During this step, I use many sources. Sometimes, I have to learn about things that I have no knowledge at all. Once I have found all the right terms, the right wording, I reformulate, punctuate, correct, do, undo and redo the sentences until I am satisfied. I try to create a strong first draft. The editing of my text will be easier and more efficient that way, so I try not to leave too many words in English or unsolved difficulties. Sometimes it feels like it is a marathon, sometimes a 5K or a 100 m sprint, but no matter what, there is a large amount of energy output during this step.

Here it is, my first draft is done. I have the feeling of having done an intense intellectual labour to give birth to a new text! In general, the result gives me a sense of accomplishment… until the next reading.

Third step: bilingual editing. It is a painstaking task. I compare the English text with the French one to make sure I did not forget a line or worse, a paragraph or a page. I verify the numbers and the spelling of names. I am on the look out of wrong meaning. I read the French paragraph after paragraph with a focus on the fluidity of the text, repetitions, syntax, grammar and orthograph. I also take care of the formatting (bold, italic…). I use a corrector (Antidote) at the end of this step too. Now, the text should be pretty good. I would compare this step either as part of a race or the recovery period depending on the text difficulty or the quality of the first draft.

Last step: French editing. It is very important at this stage to take a big step back from the text. If I do not have the luxury of letting time pass, I put on my hat of a unilingual French reader. I try to forget the original text, which is difficult to do as I have spent lots of time with it. This is why, whenever possible I prefer to have this step done by another translator/editor. Surprisingly, the number of changes during this step can still be many. It is at this moment that anything that sounds too English or not so idiomatic is more obvious. However, like any written text, at some point, I have to let go and be satisfied with the final translation made within the time allowed, as it can always be improved.

Of course, this process is not set in stone. Sometimes, a quick first draft followed by a longer editing step will work perfectly. Also, there are repetitive documents translated with the help of a translation memory software that changes slightly the process. But generally speaking, all those steps are important and done, no matter the type of text.

I hope this text has demystified the translation process. But more importantly, I hope that next time you read a text or a book and you will have completely forgotten that it was a translation, you will remember that the first quality of a good translation is its invisibility, and this invisibility has nothing to do with magic, on the contrary.