I generally translate documents from English into Spanish for use in the United States. The original document is usually in English, and I am expected to write an equivalent document that meets the client’s needs in Spanish. Since I’m also an editor, I often ask if I can insert minor customizations for the Spanish audience.
Over time, I’ve developed these four guidelines for successful translation.
1. Respect the author’s voice and intent.
Both editors and translators must respect the author’s voice and intent at all times. I take this responsibility seriously.
At the same time, agonizing over this too much can lead to very stilted text that misrepresents the source message. There’s definitely a balance!
2. Understand the source text or source materials well.
When I read for personal enjoyment or for information, I’m a casual, relaxed reader. I take off my translator and editor hats and let the writer communicate with me with no filters.
When I’m working, however, I need to keep in mind that the Spanish reader will see my translated or edited Spanish text through my eyes. I need to understand it from the point of view of the author and pay attention to the impression it made on me as a reader.
Why did the author write this? What was the purpose? What mood did the text create in me as a reader? What cultural nuances did I pick up?
To understand these nuances, translators and editors need to know both cultures intimately. For example, if a Chilean author writes el golpe (“the coup”), there is no ambiguity; it is the coup by Pinochet. And in a translation class I taught, we were translating a text on the El Niño phenomenon. It mentioned la corriente Humboldt o del Pacífico. In this case, those who grew up in Latin America knew that the ocean current that flows by Peru coming from Antarctica has two names: Humboldt and Pacific. The Spanish o means not “or,” but “otherwise known as.”
The students generally wrote, “The Humboldt current or the Pacific current,” as if they were two different currents. The students’ reaction when I corrected them: “Wait! Do we also have to know geography?” Yes. I have a Latin American high school encyclopedia that I have perused at least twice just for fun.
3. Write with the reader in mind.
How do I manage to be the author’s voice in a new language? By paying attention to the smallest details without losing the context of the big picture. It’s certainly not the same as writing the article you’re reading now, which is my own! I need to match not just the author’s words, but also their style. This is called congruency judgment: I am the judge of whether the original text and its translation are basically the same.
I had an amazing experience reading 1984 in both English and Spanish on my Kindle. I read one chapter in English and the next in Spanish, just for fun. At some point I really didn’t notice the transitions because the translator’s congruency judgment was amazing. I kept reading just to bask in the work of the translator.
To know what reader I’m writing for, I always ask the client for a translation brief. Why is this being translated? When translating a flyer for a free document-shredding event, I asked: “Will the readers know what this kind of box is? Could we give the dimensions instead?”
Our readers do not want to read “translationese.” Since I live in the United States, it’s very easy to let English affect my Spanish writing. I read Latin American newspapers daily and am always reading a book originally written in Spanish and another book in English. This keeps me up to date with current usage, and I’m able to recognize good writing.
4. Make sure the bilingual editor and translator/writer are from different countries.
Every text intended for publication should be edited. The editor should have at least the same qualifications as the translator.
In my case, I always partner with a reviewer from a different Spanish-speaking country so that together we can produce a better translation. I am from Argentina, and my bilingual editor is generally from Mexico, so I get a different perspective.
Did this translation maintain the voice of the author? Is this new document communicating the same message, without leaving anything out? Will the reader stumble over anything at all? We rewrite anything that doesn’t read smoothly, even if it’s grammatically correct. Our conversations are fun!
4 Keys to a Successful Spanish Writing Project was originally published in Tracking Changes (Winter 2019 edition). Members receive a PDF of the quarterly Tracking Changes newsletter by email.