A Guide to Good Translation for Volunteers
A wide variety of volunteers have registered as translators with Translations for Progress. Some are professional translators interested in contributing to a good cause, while others are language students with little to no experience in translation. Different volunteers have different capabilities, and we hope that this site will eventually offer plentiful volunteer opportunities ranging from basic translation to more advanced, challenging texts. For those of you with a bit less experience, we have put together a list of pointers to serve as a guide on how to provide the best possible translations for the organization you’re volunteering for:
- Always translate into your native language unless you are near native or bilingual in the second language. Even then, bear in mind that most professionals translate only into their native language.
- If you do decide to translate into a non-native language, we strongly suggest finding a native speaker to check your work over before you submit it.
- If you are unsure of the meaning of a word or phrase, always either check the meaning in a dictionary, with a native speaker, or with the organization that requested the translation.
- Please don’t attempt to translate texts of a technical nature unless you are familiar with the material or willing to put in the (sometimes considerable) time necessary to research the topic.
- Don’t trust your dictionary alone! One of the elementary errors students make is choosing the wrong translation from a dictionary entry. This typically happens when the translator doesn’t know the meaning of one of the words they are working with. To remedy this you may want to check a monolingual dictionary as they usually offer more complete definitions. Also, try looking up the likely translation to make sure that it “translates back” to the source language correctly. If you are still unsure, ask the organization or a native speaker.
- A literal word for word rendering of the text is not really a translation. You should always strive not only to convey meaning as precisely as possible, but also tone, and to make sure the translation reads well. Don’t be afraid to rearrange or rebuild sentences – well-expressed ideas are far more important than consistent grammar. This is an art form, there is always room for improvement (and debate!).
- Be aware of the importance of the texts you are translating. Medical documents, legal texts, and contracts are just some examples where the quality of your translation can be very significant and mistakes could be very damaging for the organization you are trying to help. Remember, these organizations are depending on you!
- Deadlines are important. Be aware of the difference between time sensitive documents (publications, grant applications, etc.) and other materials, like archives and non-essential program materials, where deadlines may be more flexible. Be sure to check with the organization about this first.
- Work together with the organization to assess the importance of accuracy in the translation before starting. What would be the cost of an error? If an error could be very damaging you may want to make sure a bilingual editor reviews the text, most professional translations agencies do this routinely. Perhaps the organization will have someone they can ask to edit. If not look for one locally or find an “editor” through the site.
- Keeping in mind the three previous points, ask the organization about what the translation will be used for, when it is needed, and how important it is. These are things you need to know to do your job responsibly as a volunteer.
- Remember perfection is laudable, but not always attainable. Do your best, and if you aren’t confident about a translation check your work, ask questions, or find an editor. For students (and often translators) translation is a learning experience. You’re not only developing skills, but often exposed to ideas and materials you would never come across otherwise. Enjoy!
For more information on how the pros work, have a look at these links:
If you know of more online resources for translators that would be useful for our volunteers, please let us know! We’ll add them to the list.