The Four-Step Approach to Translation Quality

by Luciano O. Monteiro
published in the September/October 2011 issue of the ITI Bulletin

There is no such thing as a fully accurate translation. However, even though we know how elusive perfection can be, there are measures we can take to reduce to a minimum any possibility of mistakes. Having that in mind, I have long devised a system called The Four-Step Approach to Translation Quality, which I employ for every assignment I receive.The four-step idea means not simply reviewing your own translation over and over again—even though that in itself is always recommendable. It also means approaching the translation differently at each stage, thus being able to benefit from different skills, from the fast thinking interpreters need to the meticulous eye to detail which is a requirement for proofreaders.

Whilst this system has been devised based on my personal experience, I believe it may be useful for all translators who believe that a literal translation is not enough and want to go the extra mile and offer ready-for-publication translated documents.

I’m publishing my workflow for one more reason—so that translation customers may realise how painstaking and time-consuming our work can be and how much more they’re buying than a simple translation. Whichever side of the fence you are on, I hope you find the next paragraphs useful.

STEP ONE — The first step is a draft translation. Whereas you could do it simply by looking at the original and writing the translation in a new file, it is recommendable to use a translation environment tool, as it automatically segments the document and stores your work in a translation memory, from which terminology can be retrieved in the future.

Even though the draft translation is not expected to be of maximum quality, it is a fundamental part of this workflow because that's when you use your "basic instinct", coming up with an immediate translation by tapping into the same process used to make speech decisions when talking in your native language. Whilst many choices will have to be amended for style later, quite a few will contribute for your translation to sound more natural.

In order not to break this “basic instinct” chain, make sure not to make long pauses during the draft translation. That is, if you find a word the translation of which you’re not entirely sure of, go with your gut feeling and make a note to carry out careful research at a later stage.

Ok, now it's time for a break. Go do something else. Stand up, drink some water, stretch your muscles, go wash the dishes, put some music on, watch the breaking news or feed the cat. If time is not a problem, take a nap. After you've completely forgotten about your translation, then perhaps it's a good time to go back.

STEP TWO — If the first stage was all about instinct, the second one is about eye to detail. Go over every sentence or segment, compare it with the original and make sure it is a correct translation within the context—which by now you’re totally familiar with, having read the document in its entirety during the previous phase. It is especially important to carefully check all names and numbers, which is easier when using a tool with quality-assurance functionalities.

After the second stage, the translation is supposed to be word-perfect, but in our line of work we'd better always err on the safe side. And, based on my experience, the third stage is the one that will set you apart from the translator who delivers his/her work under the assumption that it will be reviewed by somebody else. After all, if your client employs an editor, it's not to correct your mistakes, but rather to help improve your work—which is always possible.

Before venturing into the third stage, go about the same mind-clearing process you followed between the first and the second ones. The longer you take between steps, the more likely you'll be to look at your own translation with somebody else's eyes in order to enhance it.

STEP THREE — Once you're back, export or clean-up your document (if you're using a CAT tool) and, if possible, print it out. Then read it aloud. Pretend you're a news anchor or a voice-over artist reading an advertisement. Use your best voice and actually listen to your own words. You'll be surprised at how many improvements you'll be able to make. That's the stage where you'll join sentences, open new paragraphs and find undesirable repetitions, not to mention puns and alliterations which may not sound very well in your language.

During the third stage, if you're reading it on paper, make your corrections on the margin or by overwriting the copy. Then, after you get to the end, go back to the electronic document and implement all your changes. If you are reading on the computer screen —not ideal, I should say— you can make all the changes on the go.

STEP FOUR — Yes, there's still a fourth stage. If you're a careful translator, you've identified by now something very important which I haven't done: running a spell-checker. This has to be the last step in the workflow because typos can be introduced at any time. Your spell-checker may also find grammatical inconsistencies or inaccuracies in your text. But be careful and don't blindly follow all grammar recommendations made by the spell-checker, as some of them will be pure nonsense.

Once you’ve checked for typos, you’ve reached the end of this translation workflow. You can look at the end result with proud eyes and email the document to your client. But beware—don't forget to attach it beforehand. You don’t want to lose face by making a silly mistake after so much work.

The four-step approach to translation quality takes time and effort, but is in my opinion the best way to provide style and accuracy. Whilst being lazy and taking unnecessary risks will certainly damage your reputation in the long run, delivering high-quality work will enable you to find good clients with whom you'll be able to command fair rates, which will compensate for the time you've invested.