Trying to tackle a long translation . . . well, sometimes just thinking about it makes me weary. I’ve found that, for getting down a first draft, it works wonders to slice it up—yes, like that proverbial sausage—into bite-size pieces. Here are the tools I use:
1. Two print-outs (or copies) of the original work
Why two? Read on.
2. Plain paper, and lots of it
Nice and sharp!
I take one copy of the original work and cut it up into bite-size pieces (two to three sentences—a brief paragraph at most) which I tape to the top of a page, leaving the rest of the page invitingly blank.
5. A pencil
In that nice big blank space, without the aid of a dictionary, I jot down the slobbiest, haziest first draft and sometimes it’s got gaps so big you could drive a Hummer though them. Who cares? It’s only a first draft. Additional trick: oftentimes I grab a few pages from the stack, say, six to seven, maybe as many as 10, and fill them in during odd moments of a busy day.
6. Source language—English Dictionary
After I’ve filled in all (or some) of the pages as best I can, I go through them again, looking up the words I didn’t know or wasn’t 111% sure about.
7. Yellow highlighter
Then I go through it again, smoothing, filling in, and highlight any words and phrases that remain mysterious or awkward.
8. Dictionary of the English language
Usually by this time I feel ready to type the whole thing up (and toss out that embarrassing, scribbled, taped-together draft.) There may still be some questions; usually a dictionary is indispensable.
9. Dictionary of the source language
So is this.
And this. By now I’m in the fourth or fifth draft, polishing, polishing . . .
11. Native speaker helper
When the translation has been polished and typed and polished and retyped, even if I think it doesn’t, I’ve learned from experience that it does still need to be checked by someone else, preferably a native speaker (triple bonus points if you can also get the help of an experienced translation colleague). I translate contemporary Mexican poetry and fiction; luckily for me, my native speaker helper is my husband. How people translate 10th-century Chinese, I have no clue.
Time heals all swollen heads. You can be 99% assured, your super-polished translation still has some rough spots. To be able to see those spots, however, you need to let the translation sit in a drawer for at least a few days— though I find a minimum of three weeks is optimal— and then give it another go over. And then another. And another.
Note: This guest-blog post is part of the Center for the Art in Translation's new on-line resource page, "Translator's Toolkit."
P.S. I'll be doing a translation roundtable on September 25th at noon at the Library of Congress with poets, writers and translators including Luis Alberto Ambroggio, Yvette Neisser Moreno, Lori Marie Carlson, and Steven F. White. More info here.
UPDATE 2016. These days I stick with the laptop and for a first draft (first draft only) I rely on my online dictionaries, but as the draft advances, I still consult my paper reference books. And I'll admit it might be a good idea to return to using paper for a first draft-- away from the laptop there are fewer distractions.
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