Writing vs. Translating

John Bunch: an American, and a professional translator for German to English. He currently lives in Munich, Germany.In reading Chris Durban’s great book, “The Prosperous Translator” (which is in the form of a series of questions and answers from translators), one of the main take-aways I learned was that writing ability in one’s own native language is a critical skill of the best translators. Too many of us translators, me included, get caught up in the source language. We think that our native language is kind of automatic, and we don’t have to work on it. This is wrong for the following reasons: The target language text is the only thing your client and reader will see.  No matter how good your translation skill is, if you can’t write well in your native language, it is all for naught. The black and white text on the page in your native tongue is the only thing the reader sees of your awesome translation skills.  Language is constantly evolving. Words are being invented today in my native American English, that I don’t know about. I need to keep up.   If your text is 100% “perfect” from a translation point of view, but does not flow well, you are still going to be viewed as not very good. 

This all hit me recently when I picked up two different books on psychology. I love Amazon Kindle and I am constantly reading several books at once (a vice or a virtue, you decide). I bought Daniel Kahnemann’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”, and Chip and Dan Heany’s “Switch”. Both are sort of about the same subject: how our minds work and how we can understand them. Switch is more about how to make changes in organizations and ourselves, while “Thinking Fast and Slow” is about the two competing systems in our minds.

Even though Kahenmann’s book is considered better and more scientific and “meaty” (he won the Nobel Prize !), I ended up reading not it, but “Switch”. Why ? Because, while “Thinking…” is a better book in terms of pure content, “Switch” is just better written, it flows better, it is more fun, and it is written in a peppier, fun style.

This leads me to an insight:

Style beats content.

“Switch” uses metaphors like “the rider” and “the elephant” for our conscious mind and our  emotional mind. “Think” classified them as “System 1” and “System 2”. I found the elephant rider metaphor more compelling and easier to understand (whenever I am tempted now to break my diet and reach for an extra piece of pizza, I say to myself, the “elephant” wants to eat, but the “rider” has to bring him back “on course”, back to the path.

The Heanys just write well. I have no doubt that they have honed their writing over many years. Their content is also not bad, and the book is quite good. But this should be a lesson for us translators: bad style can throw the reader off and you will lose her. (I assume if you have read this far in my blog post, that my style doesn’t totally suck, for instance).

One of the reasons that I blog is to practice and hone my native language skills. It is a great way to do that, because you are basically writing short essays, and you are motivated because you know that people are going to read your blog.

Another, related point about writing and keeping up your native language skills is that the best way to work and live as a translator is to live in your home country, and take short trips to big cities in your source language country, according to Durban. This does two things:

By living at home, you stay up on and hone your native tongue. 

By taking short trips abroad, you can gain direct clients (by meeting them face to face, which Durban thinks is critical for making money in the profession). 

One reason that I am glad that I lived in America from 2000 to 2011, is that I honed and got back into my native American English, having lived in Germany from 1992-1999. I think that had I not done that, my native English would have slipped a bit.

There is however hope, if you are a translator living in a country where your native language is not spoken. It is to do the following:

1. Constantly read newspapers and magazines in your native tongue
2. Try to have friends that speak your native language, in your foreign country
3. Be present on social media (Facebook, Twitter). Goes without saying
4. Read books like William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well”. Read “Strunk & White”, make it a major goal to be an expert in writing 5. your native language. Read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”. It is great. 

Think of yourself as a writer first, and a translator second.

I know this goes against the grain for most translators, but I am also sure the best, highest-paid translators think this way. The best way to guarantee that you will be a low-paid “intern” in this industry is to think of yourself as a “nuts and bolts” translator who sort of “codes and de-codes” language (see my blog post on that subject). The royal road to being a high-paid professional is to think of yourself as a writer first, who uses translation as a means to prep your content, so that you can then write in your native language. Putting the “writer” in the driver’s seat, with the “translator” as the navigator (rather than the other way around) makes a lot of sense to me.

The best translators who make the top money, in addition to being good business people (many have MBAs), also think of themselves primarily as expert writers.

Anthony Pym talks about “re-texting” rather than translating. The notion is that you are a (technical) writer, not a translator, and you are using the source text as a kind of reference (you can still be “faithful” to it !), but you are ultimately writing a totally new text. I think this is very important !

Note that this gives you a lot of power as a translator. As soon as you divorce yourself from the “coding and de-coding” model of translation, you are empowered, and you are writing a new text. I commented on how “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is much better in English than in the source language, Swedish (see my blog post on that). This is because the translator wrote a whole new novel, using the source as a kind of template or “help”.

So what does this mean, when the rubber hits the road ?

Here is what you can do, after your paradigm change from translator to writer who translates:

If you are doing economic translation, read “The Financial Times” every day (I do). Read “The Economist”. Notice what makes good writing in English. Notice phrases used and terms used. (One of the great things about both those magazines is that, while they are put out from London, their English is a kind of British/International English, which makes a lot of sense to me. It is not “too American”, nor “too English”, it is just right for the international market). 

Read the “glossy magazines” put out by top-level advertising firms. What stands out and what makes the writing so good ? What flows well. What is concrete in its imagery. What is compelling. What works for you, on an emotional level. 

If you are doing media or art translation (I do), read those magazines and memorize phrases and notice how the syntax flows.  Blog (like I do) to practice writing. 

Excellent native language writing skills are – I am certain – what separates the highly-paid, good translators from the masses of “interns” who code and de-code language. This will only be more true in the near future, when translation uses more and more machine translation and CAT tools, and translators are viewed as “post editors”.

It pays (literally) to become an excellent writer.