First six months as a translator

Six months ago, I became a professional translator. I work with the Polish-English language pair. I’m still a rookie, but over these past few months I have already learned a ton of new things. I’ll describe my first experiences — what really surprised me and what I think is important to focus on as a new translator.

What surprised me:

My own ignorance of the rules of my native language. That’s right. Guilty as charged. I was really amazed at how much I didn’t know about Polish and how many language errors I have been repeating since forever only because no one’s ever pointed them out to me. I was using certain phrases incorrectly, I was confusing some abbreviations, etc. I think this particular experience is going to be different for each beginner translator, but there’s always going to be something that you’ve been doing wrong your whole life or didn’t even know of. There can be lots of such surprises when you’re first starting out in this job. Make sure to take all this new information to heart!

Hyphens and dashes. I had no idea there even was something beyond the regular dash you get by pressing the dash key on the keyboard. And that’s not even a “dash”, either: it’s a hyphen (-) and must not be confused with the en dash (–) or the em dash (—). To use those punctuation marks, you have to type in special Alt codes — another thing I learned about. Alt codes are actually extremely useful for anyone because they let you include all kinds of characters in your writing. If you’re learning about them just now, I highly recommend checking them out yourself. Super helpful!

Commas. Now this is a big one. Commas are used incorrectly by pretty much everyone. I’m still learning about all the specific rules at the moment of writing this article. The most difficult part are the differences between Polish and English — you use commas very differently in those two languages. This can be very confusing, so you have to stay sharp and keep practicing!

Translation Memories (TMs). Absolutely indispensable, brilliant tools. Everything you translate gets stored in a translation memory (TM) for later use. This makes your work a lot easier and less time-consuming. It’s a good idea to develop the habit of committing absolutely everything you translate to a TM and, perhaps even more importantly, looking up things in the TM before you translate anything. That’s because customers usually store previous translations in their TMs and you do not want to introduce any confusion by changing their approved terminology or existing names (e.g. changing a department’s name).Furthermore, preferred translations of the exact same terms and words can differ per customer, so you should always be checking the TM before you write anything.

The working pace. You have to work at a much faster pace than I anticipated. More on this later.

My typos and writing shortcomings. I used to think I was pretty good in this regard. Wrong again! It quickly came to light that I actually used to make a lot of typos and similar errors. I was even messing up the grammar sometimes. What’s worse, I couldn’t even see those mistakes as I was making them or while reviewing my own texts later on! I have improved a lot since then, but I still mess up here and there. A good translator must always be vigilant and never succumb to overconfidence in their own writing. Be extra careful when scanning for your own errors — we have a tendency to not even notice those!

What’s important to focus on:

Pace. The working pace expected of you is a lot faster than you might think. This may seem daunting early on, but don’t worry: your speed will improve naturally over time. If you feel like you should try practicing your typing, you can try some special tools for that (I highly recommend checking out 10fastfingers.com). However, when you’re just starting out (and also when you’re already experienced), it’s much more important to focus on…

Quality. Here are the top 3 things to always keep in mind:

1. Always work diligently so you have no regrets. Always give it your all. Don’t be sloppy.

2. Think as you type. Does the sentence you just translated actually make sense? If the text is about electrical devices, the word “earth” most likely does not refer to our planet. Many mistranslations come from entering this “mindless” state of just typing away, copying the source word-for-word, never stopping to actually read and think.

3. Review your own work carefully once you’re done. There’s always something: a typo you missed, an idea for a better translation, etc.

Accurate translation of source text. You should never change the meaning of source material. I have an interesting example for you. Consider these words: enclosure, package, housing, bolster, body, shell, casing. Did you know that for all those different words, there is just one single word in Polish? It’s “obudowa” and it covers all of those meanings (and more!). So what do you do when you have to translate “obudowa” to English? You must look it up and use the correct word in that specific context. Always double-check if you’re using the correct terms in your translation.

Tags. Tiny components that play a huge role. Tags appear in many translatable documents and you must pay special attention to them. Do not omit a single tag! Every one of them has to be copied to the translation. The “transcheck” function available in most translation software comes in handy here — it automatically checks for missing tags.

Don’t make things up. This is crucial. If you’re not sure of a sentence’s meaning and you can’t find an explanation anywhere, don’t just give up and pull a “best guess” translation from thin air. You should politely notify your employer or client about the issue and ask for additional context or explanation of the unclear sentence.

And last but not least…

Humility. No one likes to be criticised. It’s normal to feel slightly offended when someone points out your mistakes. But, as a translator, you must swallow your pride and be grateful for constructive criticism. Remember each error you make (write them down!) and try your best to never repeat it again. There is no point in getting angry. The person that points out your error is most likely not trying to offend you. It’s all about continuously improving your writing. You can only benefit from that! 🙂

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