Rosemary Kneipp
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41000 Blois

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Tackling a new subject

There is no reason why a professionally trained translator should remain within the confines of a chosen field of specialisation. In certain areas such as legal translation, the translator will naturally have to tackle very different fields. Contracts, company bylaws and certificates of incorporation, for example, contain references to the company’s purpose or the way it operates.  A translation about cosmetics can go into details about the skin or hair.

Which brings us to an important question: just how much of the text must the translator understand in order to produce a correct translation? Do you need to be a civil engineer to translate construction specifications, a biology major to translate medical texts or have a law degree for legal texts? The answer is "no". And having studied in a particular field is not necessarily the guarantee of a good translation.

So how does the translator go about tackling a new field? The first thing to do is to get a general idea of the subject.  Imagine that I have to translate manufacturing specifications for water beds, a subject I know nothing about.  First, I look for French websites on the subject so that I can see pictures and diagrams and read up on the subject, making sure that I consult French sites and not translations of foreign sites. Manufacturers’ websites are the most useful for this type of field. A French glossary with definitions in French can also help. Once I have understood the principle: what the mattress is made of, how you fill it and empty it, the type of covering used, etc., I look for similar sites in English to get an idea of the English-speaking context and terminology used. This is what we call parallel texts. I can also try to find a glossary in English. At this stage, I avoid using bilingual dictionaries and glossaires which often contain numerous errors. I save all the documents and sites in a folder so that I can find them again easily and look them up using the “Reference” function in WordFast*. This may all sound very time-consuming but it is the only way to really understand the text to be translated and use the right jargon.

Then, I start my translation. If it is a very short text, I read it through, but a translator rarely has enough time to read the whole document before starting the translation. Instead, I take a look at the titles and try and understand how the text is organised. The most important principle that I will apply throughout the translation is LOGIC. I have to visualise what is going on at all times. That is how I will avoid making errors and choose the right terminology. If I come up against a concept that I don’t know, I look for it in the French reference documents in my document folder. If I can’t find it, I look for other references on the Internet. If I understand the concept but can’t find the equivalent in English, I leave the term in French in my translation and highlight it on my print-out. I might well come across the right term later on without doing any further research.

If, at the end of the translation, despite further research, there are still concepts that I don't understand, I send the client an email with my questions, indicating the page and paragraph and repeating the entire sentence so that he won't waste too much time. I am careful to explain exactly what I haven’t understood. Some clients have a tendency to simply provide the translation without explaining the meaning. It is important to help them understand that this isn’t a satisfactory solution.

Once I have received the answers, I work them into my translation and look for any terms that are missing in English. At this stage, I may look them up in some of my many paper dictionaries or web glossaries. However, I also check that the term suggested is used with the same meaning in the field I am working in.  If I still can’t find the term, I ask an expert, via a website, a professional forum or translators’ forum or someone I know.

If a French concept does not have an equivalent in English (or if I still can't find it), I use a periphrase that will enable to reader to understand what I am talking about, even if it isn't the exact term. I never use a term that I have not been able to check. I tell the client about any problems I was not able to solve with certainty. I work on the assumption of course that my client is the author of the text I am translating.  That is the great advantage of calling on a translator who lives and works in the country in which the original was written.



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