Sculpting with words

Sculpting with words

What’s your translation method?

I recently read an excellent blog post by the translator Joseph Lambert in which he gave an interesting insight into his working methods. In fact, they are very close to mine: we both make a rough draft, then correct and polish the translation to end up with the finished article. Joseph, in fact, tries to have not one, not two, but three error-free read-throughs at the end of the process, which earns him great credit in my book, but is something I hardly ever have time for.

The interesting thing about this blog, though, was that the method Joseph, I and, I’d be inclined to believe, many other translators use was in absolute contrast to one described in one of the comments by Paul Boothroyd. Paul’s aim is to produce the best translation he possibly can first time round. This means going a great deal more slowly, but, of course, reducing the need for revision and editing processes later on.

So it seems as if translators are divided into two camps. Personally, although I can understand its appeal, I can’t imagine Paul’s “right first time” approach ever working for me. I’d have two main objections to it. Firstly, the inordinate amount of time that “perfect” first draft would take. When I’m drafting what I want to do is get through the text quickly. I’ll look up words I don’t know and spend some time trying to unravel difficult sentences, but what I really want to do is get to the end of the document and I don’t mind if I leave some problems barely resolved. Because, as we all know, finding the right word is one of those awkward processes that slows down and grinds to a halt the more you try to force it to work.

In theory, of course, a perfect first draft wouldn’t require any editing or revision. But, as we know, there’s no such thing as perfection, still less in translation, and this brings me to my second objection. Mistakes would still be there, even if there were fewer of them, and they would still have to be ironed out in one way or another. So as well as taking much longer for a first draft there would be little or no saving on the revision process, and that simply doesn’t make sense.

Far better, I believe, to treat the translation process like making a sculpture. The first draft blocks out the general shape, leaving some rough edges to be knocked off in the first revision phase, which completes the details. It’s amazing how many problems that seemed utterly intractable at the time of the first draft, simply resolve themselves second time through. The third revision phase is for final polishing, concentrating almost exclusively on the target text and making sure it sounds like convincing English.

This method serves me particuarly well for descriptive writing, such as some of the wine and music translations I was doing last week. In these, the form of the sentence often changes radically from first, to second and sometimes even to third draft. Synonyms have to be sought, word order altered and sometimes verbs changed to adjectives and adjectives to nouns before a real English translation can be achieved. All that would be difficult if not impossible to achieve with the first cut of the chisel, but if I go on chipping away at the piece I can produce something convincing and, who knows, even beautiful.

Are you a sculptor and polisher or do you try to do your translations in one fell swoop? You may even have a different method. Leave a comment and let me know how you work.


  1. I actually use one or the other method depending on the type of translation I’m working on. If it’s a legal or financial document I’ll generally choose the ‘well-crafted from the beginning’ option and only proofread two or three times. However if it’s a marketing translation or other type of text where feeling is more important, my first draft will be done more quickly but I’ll re-read at least four times to make sure it sounds absolutely perfect.

    • Thanks for the comment, Catharine. With legal and financial jobs what I usually find difficult is the sentence reworking that’s often required to make them sound like English. I can get the meaning in my first draft but it often reads horribly and I need several revisions to knock it all into shape. Knowing that, any attempt to get it perfect first time seems like a wasted effort, because I know it isn’t going to happen.

  2. I’m with you on this Simon. I like to go through the text quickly – my first draft can be appalling – to gauge how difficult it is. Often a query earlier on can be resolved further down the text.

    • Thanks for the comment, Alison. I wouldn’t want anyone to see my first drafts either!

  3. My approach is the exact opposite to Catharine’s!

    Marketing prose comes more natural to me than technical or legal styles, so I attempt to get it spot on the first time round, whereas technical/legal translations will be more rough on the first draft.

    In any case, 95% of the time I am able to set it aside until the following morning to proof-read, and sentences that I was completely stumped on the day before will suddenly have become crystal clear. This is why getting it perfect on the first time is perhaps not the best approach as you may change your opinion on the context as you progress through a text.

    • That’s exactly it, Lloyd. You could spend hours the first time round trying to find a solution that comes to you instantly the second time. So why waste those hours, because that first draft is never going to be perfect anyway?

  4. Hi,

    First of all, great article! It is always nice to get some insight on other colleague’s work process. Secondly, I currently work as an in-house Localizator for a game company. We get mainly two types of projects: daily updates to our games and other parallel content – marketing, website, app store, etc. – or new projects that we must begin from scratch. We use CAT tools to translate both, and our deadlines are often tight – Nothing new here. However, what I try to do is aim for the best translation possible on the first attempt. Next, I perform an in-CAT tool proofread in order to save as many translation memory updates as possible. Then, my teammate revises my text and I update glossaries and translation memories.

    On a side note, Video Game localization adds the difficulty of content updates: You need to know your developer’s work style, because if they create new assets, sometimes they might ‘clash’ with your translations. This tendency varies from one developer to another, tho.

    As I said, that was a quite interesting article!


    • Thanks very much for your comment, Sergio. It’s always good to hear how other people work.

  5. I definitely work the same way you do, Simon. I would die if I had to submit my first version. Here is where I look up terms, struggle with difficult turns of phrase or wonder what the heavens (read the opposite :)) did the author of the source text mean – and try to get to the end as quickly as humanly possible. Then, I go for what I call "my second pass" and check for any typos, mistranslations, things I may have missed or misunderstood, and so forth. And then, it’s time for the "fine-tuning" stage. I put aside the source text and concentrate on the target in order to correct style, accuracy, flow, and try to erase any feeling of it being a translation, if at all possible. If I have the gift of sleeping over it (or, as we say in Spanish – "consulting it with the pillow"), then all pieces that may have still been rolling around loose will click into place and that elusive word or term will finally rise to the surface. And if this seems like a slow process, it is not. Because I have always been able to deliver well ahead of time.
    Thanks for your post, I enjoyed reading it, and the comments of all other colleagues as well.

    • Good to hear from you, Nélida. I think there are a lot of sculptor translators like us out there.



  1. Around the web – March 2015 | A Smart Translator's Reunion - […] translations in one fell swoop or do you ‘sculpt’ then ‘polish’? Simon Berrill examines at the question, and in another post explains…

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