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Barbara Jungwirth of reliable translations llc writes about language and the business of translation.

Why a Translator Must Write Well

My short story, Pregnant!, is on p. 29-42 of this book.
My short story, Pregnant!, is on p. 29-42 of this book.
My documentation specialists must be able to write well, but the freelancers translating that documentation don’t need writing skills – after all, the text is already there, they are only transferring it into another language. Right? Wrong.

If translation consisted simply of substituting each word in your documentation (the “source”) with the equivalent in, for example, German (the “target”), you wouldn’t need a translator. A computer program with a built-in bilingual dictionary could do this rather well. But if you want the translated text to actually make sense to a German-speaker – or, better yet, be easily understood or appealing – you’ll need someone who can transfer the meaning, not just the words.

Try this: Take a medium-length sentence from your documentation, copy it into Google Translate, have the program translate it into, say, German. Then have it translate that German text into Spanish, and the resulting Spanish back into English. Compare the two English sentences. Which is better – or even adequate?

Convinced? To avoid such garbled text, you want a translator who not only knows both languages well, but can also craft concise, well-understood text in the target language. That’s where a translator’s writing skills and experience come in. Ideally, the translator should have writing experience in the language into which he or she is translating, preferably for an audience similar to yours. Such experience will help produce a target-language document that is just right for your audience – idiomatic, easily understood and appealing.

Many translators enter this profession after having worked in other fields. That usually involves at least some writing specific to that field. Even a mathematician writes papers explaining his or her findings. I started to translate after I was laid off from the software company for which I had been writing user documentation. I had joined the Society for Technical Communication as a technical writer, but have continued that membership as a technical translator. I currently serve as membership chair on the board of the society’s New York Metro chapter.

Translating is communicating. And communicating means writing – even videos start with a script. So when you need to reach a foreign audience, don’t just hire a bilingual person, hire a bilingual writer.

PS: You can read some of my writing at TheBodyPRO.com, where I summarize medical studies, in the STC’s journal Technical Communication, where I review books, and in the young adult fiction I write in my spare time (published in To the Moon: My Best Friend’s Secrets).