Seek and Ye Might Find—Research tips for translators

Information abounds. In translation, as in lay life, the immense volume of it means that the trick is to find accurate information quickly without sinking into the morass of its excess. Back in the day, dictionaries and libraries were a translator’s best friends. Now our best (though often treacherous) friend is Google. To put it and other research tools to best use, first consider the nature of your ignorance.

So, what do you need to know?

What a single word means. This most basic problem is also the least frequent for experienced translators and easiest to solve. Say you come across the Italian word “bradipo” for the first time. Of course, a dictionary would work, but just putting it straight into Google is faster and more effective. You get the English translation (“three-toed sloth”), images, the Wikipedia entry, and lots of other information you can use to choose the best translation for your context. However, beware of homophones, including cross-lingual ones. If you find “scotch” on an Italian back-to-school list, a simple Google search will lead you far astray! The fastest, most effective option is a Google search with the word and a context-defining word, such as “scotch + scuola” (“school” in Italian).

What something looks like. Fashion and industrial design get quite fanciful with color and treatment descriptions. Popular Italian color terms are “cipria” (literally, face powder) and “petrolio” (literally, petroleum). The fastest way to see exactly what a color or treatment looks like is a quick Google Image search with, for instance, “color cipria.” Then, just check if your translation, such as “powder pink,” visually matches up.

Alternate meanings. Italian is full of tricky words with alternate meanings or ones by imaginative extension. A much-mistranslated example is “declinare.” Sansoni gives eleven definitions. None of which reflects this usage (about architectural design):

Tutto è pensato in una visione sistemica e la sostenibilità è declinata in ogni aspetto.

When confused by an unusual usage of a word, I turn first to the monolingual Treccani, which gives lengthy explanations and is especially good for archaic usage. But, in this case, we’d just get lost in a forest of other meanings. comes to the rescue. Drawing on bilingual online texts to show in-context human translations, it gives many options (“to cover,” “to take the form of,” “to interpret,” “to give a…meaning,” “to translate”). I often opt for “to express,” which is nice and squishy in its usage, like declinare. The sense here is actually borrowing from the 12th definition in Sansoni [2 (Gramm) to decline.], referring to word declensions, and stretching its meaning.

What we actually say.  The question translators ask much more than what something means in the source language is what we would actually say in the target in a given context. We look for ideas rather than invariably right answers. This was the origin of my Pesky Words.  The meaning of a common word like “artigiano” is clear, but it is less obvious when and where the use of “artisan” versus “craftsman” versus “craftsperson.” Here Google can be as marvelous as it can be misleading. Calques of Romance-language usage can be so numerous that they might look correct. You can narrow the search to “.com” or, perhaps better, “.uk” sites to weed out non-native writing. For example, a Google search of “The company is a point of reference” (in Italian, calling a company a “punto di riferimento” is a favorite pastime) yields three pages of results, but Italian fingerprints are all over them; the companies described are all Italian or Spanish and the surrounding language is awkward. All signs that native English writers are unlikely to say it.

What an expression means. Idiomatic expressions can be a special challenge. If the expression is common enough, say “in bocca al lupo,” Google will immediately tell you all you need to know. forums are great for scaring up ideas to solve idioms and getting a good grasp of the range of usage, especially for the many phrases (“piove sul bagnato,” literally, “it rains on the soaked”) that have no close cousins in the target language. The forum discussions will give you grist for the mill to come up with your own solution.

Technical terms. Even in officially non-technical translations, tough technical terminology can show up. Kudoz from (just use Google by putting your term in quotes and Proz) will give you multiple suggestions and discussions among translators about them. You can look up online glossaries in the field. The “look inside” feature on Amazon and Google Books is great if you find a print technical dictionary or glossary.  Or you can start your glossary search at Glossarissimo.

Historical names, plant/animal species, and place names. Wikipedia’s multilingual sidebar links are lovely starting points for these kinds of questions. What was Alexander the Great called in Italian?  For species names, it always helpfully gives the Latin name to help you through the forest of alternate common names. Ponderosa Pine, anyone? Always double check Wikipedia’s suggestions as the wiki format can usher in inaccuracy.

And the ever-necessary word to the wise: just because it’s written doesn’t mean it’s true. Doubt, double check, and cross check.



Kudoz from




Wiktionary forums

Translating for the Language Mavens

For 20 years, my friend Jun and I have disagreed about language. A one-time copyeditor, she rigorously responds to “How are you?” with “I’m well” and not “Good.” I think she’s never met a split infinitive she liked. I, on the other hand, am a follower of Steven Pinker, who says of Jun (or William Safire, same difference):

“The legislators of “correct English,” in fact, are an informal network of copy editors, dictionary usage panelists, style manual writers, English teachers, essayists and pundits.Their authority, they claim, comes from their dedication to carrying out standards that maximize the language’s clarity, logic, consistency, precision, stability and expressive range. William Safire, who writes the weekly column “On Language” for the New York Times Magazine, calls himself a “language maven,” from the Yiddish word meaning expert, and this gives us a convenient label for the entire group.

To whom I say: Maven, shmaven! Kibitzers and nudniks is more like it. For here are the remarkable facts. Most of the prescriptive rules of the language mavens are bits of folklore that originated for screwball reasons several hundred years ago. For as long as they have existed, speakers have flouted them, spawning identical plaints about the imminent decline of the language century after century. The rules conform neither to logic nor to tradition, and if they were ever followed they would force writers into fuzzy, clumsy, incomprehensible prose, in which certain thoughts are not expressible at all.Indeed, most of the “ignorant errors” these rules are supposed to correct display an elegant logic and an acute sensitivity to the grammatical texture of the language, to which the mavens are oblivious.”

I like to boldly split infinitives and would love to flout even more such nonsensical rules. But, when translating, the specter of Jun gives me pause. We always write for imagined readers. I want my translations to be understood and sound good to native and non-native English readers. If I break a beloved rule of the language mavens, I know they will take out their red pens. For instance, I would love to use the “singular they” to get around the awkwardness of “he or she” and the archaicness of “he.” But just as my fingers are about to type “they,” I hold back, if only not to pain Jun.

Customer always right?

English is a sensitive issue for many Italians. Until recently, it was infamously poorly taught in schools. Knowing English well is associated with career success, travel and worldliness. Many Italians I know who have a solid intermediate level of English will claim to know none. However, the paradoxical flip side of the coin of insecurity can be overconfidence. Clients asking for my services will often say they just don’t have the time to do it themselves. All over Italy are the disastrous results of people confident they needn’t pay a translator.

Because English skill is an ego-laden point here — correcting someone’s English can seem tantamount to calling them a rube — it takes tact to deal with non-native revisers. Italians with high-level English (and always correspondingly aware of their limitations) can be great revisers; their questions often lead me to better solutions. But I find it difficult to avoid getting tetchy with over-confident revisers. Some signs of overconfidence:

1) Translating slogans, section titles, etc. themselves. Recently, I just barely saved a client from printing up their staff T-shirts with a major grammar mistake in the English.

2) Sending “corrections” (“coocked ham”) to the English directly to the graphic designer and merely CCing the translator.

3) Rejecting the translator’s suggestions in favor of what “sounds right to them.”

4) Thinking it’s easy and should be paid accordingly.

I like to be helpful to my clients, and I understand how it can be hard — particularly for authors — to relinquish control. But I’d ask a little more faith, a little more humility, and perhaps a little independent Googling before querying common English phrases.

Review of 101 Things a Translator Needs to Know

Pithy yet potentially daunting, 101 Things a Translator Needs to Know sums up in 101 short entries what one might learn in a lifetime translation career. It underscores the vast variety of the translation landscape and the multiplicity of skills needed. Someone reading it at the beginning of her career or considering a career in translation might exclaim, “Holy moly! I have to know everything! Be a marketer, bookkeeper, IT expert and client relations specialist on top of translating!” That is indeed the case, which is part of what makes it an ever-challenging, interesting profession.

The book blurb says it is both for beginners and “seasoned professionals.” As one of the latter, I concur. I did know, on at least one one of the many levels of knowing, all 101 things, but I earmarked the pages for those things I like to forget that I know. For instance, “#31: Be a fly on the wall,” which suggests making a habit of “hanging out where your potential clients gather.” Like many translators, I have an introverted side (otherwise, working alone all day would be torture), so I have to force myself to network in person. Or #94, which suggests telling (not asking) your clients to credit you as the translator. I have the request in my terms and conditions, but don’t often insist.

We translators have a higher-than-average tendency to get our panties in a bunch over near everything and most especially rates, clients, other translators and machine translation. I appreciated the even-handed, positive tone of the book. For example, “#39: Good guys, bad guys” acknowledges that among clients there are the good, the bad and the ugly, suggesting strategically weeding out the latter two, and “don’t waste time and energy ranting about bad clients.” Or the aptly titled “#86: Google Translate doesn’t,” which is not a diatribe, just a statement of fact.

The book is not wishy-washy. While noting the great diversity of the field and that all rules are made to be broken, it gives exact advice, not just “whatever works for you.” Desktop computers and large monitors: good; laptops: bad. Translating into your regional variant: good; imitating other, or invented “neutral” variants: bad. The entries are a nice combination of straightforward advice, like “always reply” to emails and calls, and reminders of the complexity and creativity of translation.

The book’s web site has a section for readers to add their tips. But, impressively enough, I think they didn’t miss a thing.

Ode to Mailing Lists

Early in my career, around the turn of the millennium, I was at a dinner in Washington D.C. and met a retired translator who had worked for governmental agencies translating from several languages, including Italian, into English. Though I was showing the wetness behind my ears, I couldn’t help but gasp at imagining the task of translating pre-Internet, “How did you do it?” He answered that he used the phone a lot, calling experts in various fields in addition to using books printed with ink on paper bound together, often kept in buildings called “libraries.”

I went home and threw a kiss to my multi-purpose friend, Google. Translation these days can be very high tech with CAT tools, sophisticated search techniques and so on. Some translators complain about the burden of needing to be tech savvy and language savvy at once, but as I imagine days of white-out, impossible-to-find terminology and mailing paper documents, I can only be grateful.

My favorite translator-related things about the Internet are mailing lists like IT-EN and Langit. These lists have played an invaluable role in my career, providing help, ideas, jobs, friends, entertainment and a place to vent (non-translator friends might not be riveted by tales of terminology woe). IT-EN is only for translators working between Italian and English, tending to be dominated by those working in my combination, Italian to English. Langit is for all translators working with Italian in various combinations. In the wild and woolly world of translation, even those with formal education in translation still have a lot to learn about the market, tools, client-wrangling, and so on, forever and forever. When I was a newbie, I was amazed by the generosity of oldbies in sharing their wisdom and experience. My Pesky Words are the direct fruit of this generosity. For instance, Simon Turner’s Tariffometro gave me clues to get through the ludicrously complex translation market in which everyone counts texts differently and rates cover an enormous range. Long-time translators donate their expertise and skill to help others find solutions to knotty translation problems. It’s a great antidote to physically-solo employment to brainstorm with a crowd of translators to deal with wordplay (otherwise I would have to start a campaign to ban the pun from the Italian language) or some such bugaboo. It’s also great for getting a multi-English perspective. I translate into American English, of course, but most of the texts will be read by a multinational audience so I like to have my translations be readily understood by all and need the input of Brits, Scots, Kiwis, etc. For example, my Pesky Words were originally Sucky Words, but others on the list told me that they did not associate the word “sucky” with, um, “sucks eggs” and that it might be a little offensive.

For all these reasons and more, when new translators ask me for tips on getting started, I always send them to these lists, where they can learn at the knees of masters.

The Difficult Lives of Translation Clients

I’ve been trying to find a decent plumber for weeks now. The plumbers, in high demand, are holding all the cards. My toilet is broken; I don’t know how to fix it. All I’ve got going for me is a little cash with which I will reluctantly part to stop my toilet from leaking.

Translators like to complain about clients. Clients who are demanding, who are too fussy, or not fussy enough because they don’t appreciate the art of what we do. Clients who want it cheap, want it fast, don’t care if it’s lousy. Sometimes I join the chorus of kvetch (clients who send me a new version of the source document the moment I’ve finished the translation of the earlier version; argh).

But, at the end of the day, we, the translators, are the stronger party in the relationship, particularly in language combinations where demand is on our side, like Italian>English. We have something our clients very much need for the success of their undertakings, just as I very much need a functioning toilet for the success of my household hygiene. They are usually poor judges of the quality of what they are buying, poor translator shoppers, and ill-equipped to navigate the complex translation marketplace.  Consequently, they are often sold a bill of goods. I’ve written advice on how to choose a freelance translator, but many clients don’t even know they need advice.

Many clients that are for-profit businesses suffer from being penny-wise/dollar-dumb. They pay a little bit less and get reputation-tarnishing junk. For example, the difference in price between a quality professional translation and a poor one for the web site of a hotel might equal the rate for a room for a night. Individual clients, such as book authors (Italian publishers seem to have done away with their translation budgets and put the onus on the author), may have the problem of understanding well the importance of a good translation and how much it can boost the success of their work, but not have several thousand dollars lying around. Some of my clients have turned to innovative ways to finance the translation, like Kickstarter or pre-orders. Then there are many would-be clients who are underserved by the marketplace: those who need “good-enough” translations at affordable prices for emails, blog comments, in-house texts, etc.

In my laborious attempts to get my leaky toilet fixed, I have at least one advantage over translation clients; I can tell if the toilet works or not. Naive translation clients might think they’ve got their problem solved and put online or print a silly translation, thereby wasting time and money and losing face. Poor clients!

Short and Sweet

I like to be helpful to my clients and welcome their requests with open arms. But it can happen that the demands of good English force me to turn down a client’s request, as I did recently when I was asked to make my English translation closer in length to the Italian original to avoid awkward page layouts. As I translate documents in which the readability and flow of the English are particularly important (as opposed to, say, legal documents, which are meant to be unreadable in every language), my English translation is generally between 10% and 20% shorter than the Italian original. Part of this is just that English words are shorter on average than Italian ones, but a great deal of it is because good English values concision and shuns redundancy. Other factors making good English shorter include a preference for active sentence construction and using verbs instead of nouns.

I discuss some of these “cultural differences” between English and Italian elsewhere. Both to help my clients understand why there’s this difference and as a reference for my colleagues, here is a list of examples of possible translations with a much shorter character count. Of course, the choice of translation depends on many factors and in some contexts I might choose a wordier option.

Other pithy examples? Add in comments.

In questo locale è severamente vietato fumare No smoking
Il mese di febbraio February
Il colore rosso Red
Rappresenta Is
Il sopracitato architetto milanese He
Dedicato a For
Infatti, infine, invece, anche, inoltre
È della massima importanza It’s essential
È possibile Can
Ha permesso Let
Era reso possibile da Let
Cosiddetto “”
Dispone di Has
Estremamente Very
L’immobile che si trova all’indirizzo The property at
Basta pensare a e.g.,
Colgo l’occasione per porgere i miei più cordiali saluti Sincerely,
Contemporaneamente At once
Ha acquisito uno spessore maggiore Thickened
Procede a fare Does
Ma allo stesso tempo Yet
Modificati e alterati Altered
Metà del secondo decennio del Cinquecento circa Around 1525
Vi preghiamo di reggervi agli appositi sostegni Please hang on

Becoming a Translator: My Story

Fresh-faced, bushy-tailed translators ready to blaze their translation trail often ask experienced translators how they did it. Their accounts vary wildly (as seen in the Translation Journal’s Translator Profiles).

This is mine:

I was sixteen and studying abroad in the Netherlands with AFS Intercultural Programs when I first considered translation as a career. For my own entertainment, I tried back-translating an interview from Dutch (well, Flemish) to English with my favorite British god, Morrissey, from an interview that had appeared in a Belgian magazine. I even went so far as to send my version (by real mail; it was 1991) to the author of the article to see how I’d done at guessing Morrissey’s original words. The author responded saying I’d done a great job, though Morrissey had compared himself to an “old, beaten shoe” not a “worn-out shoe.”  I remember my host mother saying I should become a translator and my agreeing.

Years on, I’d abandoned Dutch for Italian and was studying in Florence. I remember the pleasure and absorption of the intellectual challenge of translation exercises and again thought it could be for me. After having spent more time in Italy, I was living in New York, had a lot of downtime at work and the Internet in the early years of its proliferation. I started emailing small hotels in Italy and offering my translation services for a pittance (e.g., $20 to correct (re-translate) a couple web site pages). As I gained skills, resources, contacts, and confidence, I started working for agencies, then publishing houses and other direct clients.

My story is unusual among translators in that it was an intentionally chosen path and my first career, whereas many translators stumbled onto the path and then realized it was for them.

Contact with more experienced colleagues through groups like Yahoo IT-EN was essential for my learning process. For instance, my Pesky Words list originated when I was stewing on a new way to translate “punto di riferimento,” and I realized that my more experienced colleagues would have translated it thousands of times. The support of serious translators was also vital for learning the craft and understanding the many levels of the marketplace.

Early in my career, I went to an American Translators Association conference where I sat for a proctored, hand-written exam to be accredited to translate from Italian to English.  I also took a course at NYU in Italian-to-English translation, which was not at all useful.

I tell aspiring translators that their first priority should be to gain practice because translation is a skill, not just a knowledge set that can be acquired passively. Early on, this experience could be gained by volunteering (such as with Translators without Borders or contacting NGOs in your language combination, translating articles on Wikipedia in your areas of interest, translating at the Standard level for Gengo (which pays $0.03 a word and requires passing a test), or volunteering to help an experienced translator in exchange for revising your translations.

Experience, research and colleagues will teach you what you like doing, what you hate, what you need to learn, what tools will help you, and how to keep on growing.

Glimmer of hope for IT>EN quality?

Most Italian>English translations are terrible, ranging from machine translated hilarity to shoddy, non-professional, native-tongue translations, as gleefully, ruefully documented at ProvenWrite. When you come across well-translated English in Italy, it’s a pleasant surprise. When the translator is credited, it is usually a colleague I know, as recently happened when I saw a well-translated exhibition catalogue  and was pleased to see it was translated by Catherine Bolton.

But, just maybe, things are changing. Almost every new client I’ve had this year has come to me through a similar path. Almost all already had an English “translation.” Then, someone along the way, occasionally in-house, but more often an Anglophone affiliate (as international partnerships grow more common in proportion to funds in Italy growing scarcer) reads the bad translation and spills the beans. Realizing they’ve been sold a false bill of goods, the clients ask around for a serious translator and are directed to me, usually by other clients. They write that they’ve been told there were, um, “inconsistencies” in the translation and might I “proofread” it. I generally read two sentences, “move to trash” and start fresh.

Most clients really want good translations. Perhaps, at least in the IT>EN market, the shysters selling boxes of garbage marked “English” on the outside are finally being exposed.

The needless challenges of searching for a quality translator

Clients and friends often ask me to suggest translators. When the translator needed is in my language combination (IT>EN) or vice versa (EN>IT), I have direct experience with quality translators whom I can suggest without reserve. If you need top-of-the-line wine translations from Italian to English, go to Giles Watson (; if you need great IT>EN medical translations, see Marie-Hélène Hayles ( But when it’s in other combinations, the search is more difficult than it ought to be.

When it’s for a friend or trusted client, I like to do them a favor and search myself, so they don’t get lost, or hoodwinked by the hordes of eager pretenders offering translations in every language combination possible, with all possible specializations, at low, low prices, lightening speed, and a gummy worm included for free. My good friend who made a fabulous documentary about children from Angola in Catalonia needed a Catalan-to-English translator to translate the glowing reviews of her documentary that appeared in Catalan papers. She had, indeed, already been hoodwinked, having gotten a free “translation” from a native Catalan speaker. Like most people outside of the translation field, she didn’t realize that well-nigh no one can translate well into his or her second language. I searched Google, the ATA Directory and  (where one has to be on particular guard against “imitation translators”). The advantage of Proz in this case (as the target language was my native language) was the inclusion of samples. I was able to give her a few suggestions of likely good translators (likely, as you can’t be sure without first-hand experience).

Recently, a client asked me to recommend an Italian-to-French translator specialized in architecture. I went to the AITI‘s database, which gave me one option. I looked through my contacts and contacts of contacts on LinkedIn, but most profiles had too little information. Many of the job descriptions just said “translator” without specifying the language combination. Though I read French very well, it can still be difficult to judge quality in languages other than your own. At any rate, I found no translation samples from the handful of apparently qualified translators I found after much search. I ended up suggesting two translators with the caveat that I only suspected they would be good.

I wish my colleagues would be more visible, offering the World Wide Web easy-to-find information replete with samples, portfolios, specializations, and credentials so I could recommend them with confidence.