Seven tips on translating books

book translation

Translating a book is much like writing a book. Regardless of the subject or type of text – a thesis, a scientific article or a novel, the expectations are different from those for purely technical translations of documents, articles and more utilitarian texts. You not only have to maintain the structure and meaning, but also the style and tone. This means that it is not enough for professional translators to be fluent in both languages, but they must also be good writers and be creative enough to make a book compatible not only with a different language but also another culture.

Here are some tips to help when translating a literary work, academic thesis or any other large, in-depth work in which it is essential to speak with the writer’s voice:

1. Read!
Do you want to translate books professionally? Get reading. And read a lot about a wide variety of subjects, regardless of your speciality (literary, scientific, legal translation…). This will develop your language skills and prepare you to work on a wide variety of subjects and different writing styles.

2. Get in touch with your creative side.
Practise writing in your own language. Write a journal or a blog about issues that are important to you or your work and do it regularly. Master your own language before you try to gain a full command of other languages.

3. Set goals and get organised.
Translating a large work with hundreds of pages and a bibliography addressing complex subjects may seem to be a gargantuan task with a short deadline. Don’t forget that, in most cases, quality trumps quantity, so set targets and make sure you meet them.

4. Do your homework!
When you take on a book, remember that the author may have other published works. Read them and learn about the subjects addressed by the writer and his/her style, tone and construction of text. Familiarise yourself with the writer’s own culture, especially if you are translating a personal or literary work.

5. Replace.
Many words and expressions in the source language may not have a direct equivalent in the target language or culture. This often means using linguistic substitution, i.e. replacing an idiomatic expression with another in the target language to reproduce the author’s intended meaning.

6. Compress.
You may find that a particular translated sentence is too long and stylistically or even grammatically problematic, which is common in certain language pairs. For example, this often happens when translating from Portuguese to English (a more concise language that generally uses shorter sentences). This means that you have to know how to compress, meaning that you deliberately remove some words, passages or information during translation so that the sentence makes sense in the target language. You do this without sacrificing the original meaning, style or tone (factors that are not as important in a purely technical translation).

7. Make tough decisions.
Add puns and expressions if there are no exact matches in the target language. Be familiar with as many synonyms and solutions as possible. But remember that sometimes you have to leave the original alone and accept that certain expressions have to be translated literally. Or you may simply not translate them at all and add an explanatory note. These are decisions that you have to make when translating a book, especially in works of fiction, poetry or philosophy, for example.