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Translation Done Right and Wrong

by Angel L. Soto
English-Spanish Translator
Book Editing Associates

Writers want an audience. In 2017 that could be done through word of mouth, social media, print and online marketing, and college and bookstore tours. A book rarely sells itself. The writer who has something to say wants a wide reach.

Would you be happy if your work is read by 5 people? 5,000? Most writers want a much larger readership.

But how can your work get more exposure? Your work is online, or in print, and it appears to be selling well. Have you considered marketing to readers in other continents? Other countries?

We live in a big world where many languages are spoken, and many people are missing out only because they do not speak a particular language. Do you think many Americans would have read the Swedish novel Män som hatar kvinnor written by Stieg Larsson? What about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Same book. It was translated into English for American readers, and into English for British readers.

Isn’t English just English?

American English is not the same as British English, just as Spanish Spanish is not the same as Mexican Spanish. There are differences. Did you know that there are over fifteen words in Spanish for kite? Just because I call it a chiringa doesn’t make it correct in all instances. It could be a cometa, a papilote, or a papagayo. And did you know that papagayo cotorra means parrot in some Spanish-speaking countries?

There are also subtleties within a language where one needs to be careful. Let’s say that you are writing about a birthday party. “Maria placed the cake on the table.” You could say, “María puso el bizcocho sobre la mesa.” It seems right. Most Spanish speakers would not think twice after reading this. I would get a bizcocho every year for my birthday. However, in Mexico “bizcocho” means “cow dung.”

So, how do you make sure you are using the right translator?

You could use start by using an online translator, just like the one used in Google, as a quick fix, but I do not recommend it. You can use it to get the gist when it comes to a foreign word or phrase, but dat is alles. When it comes to translating, you are not translating something word for word. You must make sure that the sentences are correct, that the paragraphs are correct, but most importantly that the context of what you are translating is correct. I know people who have used a program to translate a manuscript to hilarious, as well as embarrassing, results (more on that below). This is why it is important to use a person who knows what they are doing and not use AutoCorrect or BabelFish (just two examples). Anyone who texts from their phone has times of frustration when the phone “fixes” your input. The same frustration affects readers of poor translations.

When I used the phrase “Maria placed the cake on the table” with the Google translator, the Spanish result was “María coloca la torta sobre la mesa.” Is it wrong? Not really. It is acceptable for the most part except that in some countries torta is a sandwich, and in others torta is a fruit tart. Most Spanish speakers will get that torta means cake due to the story’s context, but that is not always the case.

Another issue can be when you are doing a translation of a translation. It is like playing a game of telephone. Some things get “lost” in translation, or worse, misinterpreted. Some words and phrases may be removed from one language when it is superfluous in another. It is always a judgment call. A human call.

A few years ago I was working on a Hindi study about rural development. It was translated into Danish and then translated into English for an academic journal. One of the sentences mentioned that some workers thought some jobs were beneath them. What they were trying to say was that they hated doing manual labor. It might be funny to us, but the non-English-writing writers would not have been amused once it was explained to them. The repercussions for the original author would have been devastating.

Consider the type of editing you need. Let’s say you are writing a book on fashion design. How do you translate terms like cutting through the bias, empire waist, sweetheart collar, and pedal pushers? Those terms do not translate well literally. In a case like this, I would contact a fashion school or someone who knows those terms who can assist with the translation. Granted, this will cost money, but it is necessary for accuracy. The intended readers must understand the text or the translation/editing process (and money) is wasted and the author’s reputation is damaged.

I need to mention a distasteful part of the translation “business.” Some translators lack integrity. There is no kind way to present this. I am referring to those who rely exclusively on online tools to do translations and do not bother to read the output. I’m aware of an instance when an author was writing about textiles and colors—how prints are printed onto fabric using the RBG colors of light (red, green, and blue). What the translator wrote was related to color shades (e.g., light green, light red that looks like pink). The author was furious for all the right reasons.

If you are looking to expand the reach of your work, consider having your work translated by a professional translator with positive references, and subsequently proofread by a native speaker.


Angel L. Soto offers copyediting, APA formatting, desktop publishing, fact checking, book indexing, copy writing, and English-Spanish translation.

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