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How to get a better translation

13 June 2022
By Barbara Dragsted

The four roles of the translator and how to work well with your translator

The invisible translator...

It has always been a mantra in translation - both in practice and as an academic discipline - that a successful translation is one that does not sound translated. The reader of the translated text must not be struck by awkward phrasing and word choice or otherwise sense the original language behind the words in the translated text. You may be familiar with the irritation - or pleasure - of guessing what has been said in English when reading an English text.

The paradox of the translator's role is that the better you do your job, the less you get noticed. In a way, you could say that a translator's most important task is to be invisible.

It may sound like a thankless task, but there is great satisfaction and professional pride in (re)creating a text that seems as valid and credible to the target language reader as the original text does to the source language reader. This is true of fiction, where the translator's task is, somewhat simplistically, to give the reader of a translated novel or short story the same experience as the original language reader.

And this is true of specialist texts, where the translator's task is to hit on the specialist terminology and jargon that seems natural and recognisable in the target language within a specialist community. If the translator fails to do this, the technical text loses its credibility and therefore its value.

Most professional translators specialise in translating technical language, and their main focus is to create texts that are written in natural language, using the correct technical terminology - in other words, texts that don't "stand out". In this way, the professional translator takes pride in being "invisible".

... and the visible contribution

However, when it comes to the translation process, a skilled translator with a good overview can take on a much more visible and constructive role than "just" delivering a linguistically correct text with the right terminology. 

1) the translator as a sparring partner

A successful translation requires that the translator understands the text he or she is working with - if not down to the last detail, then at least enough to be able to see through errors and ambiguities, or lack of coherence. The skilled translator will draw the client's attention to such ambiguities in the original text, and in this way the translation process will lead to a better original text.

2) the translator as co-producer

A translator who has built up a special competence in a particular subject area becomes a kind of 'semi-expert' in the field, and this can benefit the client in many contexts. For example, the translator can help proofread texts that the client has written himself, for example in English. In addition to making linguistic corrections, the translator can provide input on rewrites and improvements to make the message clearer.

3) the translator as cultural mediator

The translator has an in-depth knowledge of the culture in which the translation will be used, and in some cases it may be necessary to make extensive adaptations to a text in order to reach the target audience in a particular culture.

4) the translator as terminological expert

An important element of technical language translation is finding the correct technical terminology, and translators spend a lot of time searching for terminology. The terminology is stored in a database and this database can be made available to the client as a kind of dictionary. In this way, the translator helps to ensure consistency of language and terminology for the client, in both the source and target languages (e.g. Danish and English).

Read more about the benefits of a translation agency.