Clear Thinking for Clear Writing

After working on several texts of varying quality for an exhibition catalogue recently, I was not surprised that one of them came back with revisions for translation updates. The text read as if the art critic was trying to express concepts that he had not fully thought over, and was fumbling for words, resulting in strange choices of words, unnecessarily long sentences, syntax going off the rails, to say nothing of stray words and typos.

Such documents slow the translator down because it requires a fair amount of head-scratching and a bit of guess work before we can venture to turn tin into foreign gold. We may occasionally ask questions, which is time-consuming for both parties, but when it comes to syntax, I know from experience that queries only confuse the client. I appreciate that my clients are not linguists, but if this affects our understanding and we misinterpret the meaning, we are bound to mistranslate it too. You may find it helpful to read your final version out loud to spot problems in your writing.

Another issue in this case was the tight deadline. No time for questions! So I sent my translation with comments (“the text says ‘on the right’, but it’s on the left in the painting”, etc.). Predictably, the text came back, with many changes, some of which I had already ironed out in my translation, but most involved sentences being reworked, added or deleted, changes of words (so the whole sentence needed re-translating in places) as well as new mistakes. And the gallery needed it the same day, if I could. Luckily, I could and did, but it cost the client an extra hour and a half of my time for a fairly short text.

You can only verbally express concepts clearly if they are crystal clear in your mind first. If you struggle to formulate them, you likely need to think things over further and hone your arguments until you feel confident that you have finally pinned them down. Once your ideas are clear, your writing will flow, and so will the translation process.

reading glasses and book

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