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.