Saturday, October 14, 2006

Foundations of Translation - Lesson 3

(These are the notes for a course on Foundations of Translation I am teaching at the University College of the University of Denver. I'll be publishing the notes for the various lessons during the next few weeks. A short description of the course can be found here).

Characteristics of a good translator

Linguistic knowledge

Source language(s) (SL)

Need to understand SL language as well as a native speaker
  • Nuances and subtleties
  • Slang and colloquial expressions
  • Cultural references (Including such things as sports, etc.)
  • Regional variations
  • Different registers
  • etc.

Target language (TL)

  • Native tongue of translator (normally - but see for instance Russian different take on this: emphasis on the need by the translator to fully understand the text)
    In the real world, in several countries, most translators translate by necessity from their native tongue into foreign languages
  • Ability to express oneself eloquently
    • Excellent knowledge of grammar
    • Rich vocabulary
    • Good style
    • An "ear" for one's own language
    • Ability to evolve with the evolving standard of one's language

Subject-matter knowledge

  • The translator needs to understand fully the source language text
  • The translator should have a deep knowledge of the appropriate terminology both in the SL and in the TL
  • Warning: the language component of subject-matter expertise depends also on the language in which such subject matter has been learned

Subject-matter areas

  • Financial statements
  • Web sites
  • Business letters
  • HR material
  • Promotional material
  • etc.
  • Agreements
  • Contracts
  • Certificates
  • Court documents
  • Patents
  • Laws
  • etc.
Industry and technology
  • Computers
    • Software
      • Translation
        • Translation of resource (rc) files
        • Translation directly in the source code
        • Translation of strings extracted to some other format
      • Localization (L10n)
        Localization (sometimes shortened to "l10n") is the process of adapting a product or service to a particular language, culture, and desired local "look-and-feel." An internationalized product or service is therefore easier to localize. In localizing a product, in addition to idiomatic language translation, such details as time zones, money, national holidays, local color sensitivities, product or service names, gender roles, and geographic examples must all be considered. A successfully localized service or product is one that appears to have been developed within the local culture. (From
      • Internationalization (I18n)
        Ideally, a product or service is developed so that localization is relatively easy to achieve - for example, by creating technical illustrations for manuals in which the text can easily be changed to another language and allowing some expansion room for this purpose. This enabling process is termed internationalization. (From
      • Globalization (g11n)
        The process of first enabling a product to be localized and then localizing it for different national audiences is sometimes known as globalization. (From
    • Documentation
      • MS Word files
      • Framemaker
      • Other DTP files (Quark, InDesign, etc.)
    • Help files and web sites
      • HTML
      • DHTML
      • Flash, and other dynamic files
      • XML
      • css and other style files
      • GIF, JPEG and other graphic files
  • Engineering
    • Industrial engineering
    • Plant engineering
    • Civil engineering
    • Examples
      • Railways
      • Steel mills
      • Specifications
      • Instructions
      • etc.
  • Biotechnology
  • etc.
  • Medical insurance documents
  • Consent Forms
  • Instructions & Brochures
  • Pharmaceutical documents
  • etc.
  • Astronomy
  • Physics
  • etc.
Social sciences
Arts & humanities
(Anything under the sun, really)

Professional knowledge

  • Tools available
  • Reference materials available
  • Where to ask for help
  • How to search for the information we need
  • Business knowledge (How to manage one's own job)


  • Knowing what one knows and what one does not know, always questioning ourselves
  • Knowing one's abilities, strengths and weaknesses
  • Knowing one's own learning style


  • Accuracy
  • Timeliness
  • Reliability

Assignments for next class

  1. Translate the text selected as part of your Class 2 assignment.
    • Write down the steps followed in creating the translation
    • Write down difficulties encountered and steps taken to overcome them
    • Write how the actual experience differed from your expectations (which you should have written as part of your Class 2 assignment)
    This test will be graded (not on the quality of the translation, but on the work done in externalizing the experience.
    About 250 words each person.
  2. Read chapter in "Becoming a Translator" about the process of translation, and Chapter 3 of "How To Succeed As A Freelance Translator"

Notes from the previous lessons in this course:

Foundations of Translation - Course Description
Foundations of Translation - Lesson 1: Difference between translation and interpreting
Foundations of Translation - Lesson 2: Jobs for translators


  1. "Native tongue of translator (normally - but see for instance Russian different take on this: emphasis on the need by the translator to fully understand the text)
    In the real world, in several countries, most translators translate by necessity from their native tongue into foreign languages"

    ...and you're okay with this? I fear you, as an educator, are part of the problem by presenting this practice as if it were a given standard. Or did I miss something?

  2. Hi Anonymous

    I'm not normally OK with this (i.e., with translating into a foreign language).

    Bear in mind two things:

    1) this are my lecture notes, but the material was of course given in more detail during the lecture, and

    2) What I'm saying in the passage to which you refer is a description of what currently goes on ("in the real world [...] most translators [...]).

    I don't think this can be construed as my advocating translating from one's mative tongue into a foreign language.

  3. Perhaps you could be more explicit about business behaviour of freelance translators. How to communicate with PMs, no extensive telephone communication, all part of agreement in written form only, PM is not your buddy, s/he has to manage maybe 20 languages at the same time in different projects etc. Don't complain about the end-customer.
    Deliver on time always, rather early than at the deadline sharp. That will increase the chance to get more work in the future.
    Just a few points.

  4. Hi HP:

    I will certainly bear in mind your suggestions for future courses (and also if I'll expand these outlines to something more useful for people studying on their own). Thank you.



Thank you for your comment!

Unfortunately, comment spam has grown to the point that all comments need to be moderated. All legitimate comments will be published as soon as possible.