5 reasons why curiosity is a hallmark of a good translator

Cartoon of a person being curious

Curiosity has had a bad press for centuries. After all, curiosity killed the cat, right? Back in AD 397 St Augustine wrote that God “fashioned hell for the inquisitive”. And a 17th century grammar school head even suggested that “He that pryeth into every cloud may be struck with a thunderbolt”!
 
So why is curiosity so vital to the translator? Here are five reasons.
 

  • Translating not only means putting words in one language down on the page in another language. It means getting inside the head of the author. Trying to decide exactly what the author’s message is. Being curious about the author’s agenda. Don’t be afraid to ask your client – or the author, if possible – to clarify ambiguous words or phrases. It’s not a sign of ignorance, it’s the sign of a professional wanting to be 100% accurate.
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  • Translating means investigating. Could that slightly odd sounding phrase in the source text be an idiom you haven’t come across before? Or a cultural reference? Could it be the name of a television programme in that country, or a local catch phrase? Translating means spending a lot of time on the internet browsing and researching.
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  • A good translator takes nothing for granted. Is the name of that organisation/journal/university/EU Directive which the author quoted in your target language 100% correct? Double-check everything. Authors quoting names and titles in a foreign language often get them wrong.
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  • A good translator questions everything. Abbreviations and acronyms left as they appear in the source language are useless to the target language reader. Pry into every abbreviation cloud. What does it mean? Does it need translating or explaining? Most abbreviations are so easy to track down. Tip: search for the word “Abbreviation” in the source language, followed by the abbreviation itself and a source-language keyword from your text, or the field. Obvious, maybe – but you’d be surprised how often I revise texts where the translator hasn’t found an abbreviation it has taken me seconds to locate.
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  • Translating means being curious about the subject matter you are translating about. It’s not enough to simply look up a technical term in a specialist dictionary and use it. If you don’t understand the context or the process behind it, you might not describe it properly and the user of your translation may struggle to follow it. Or worse!

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it’s invaluable for users of CAT tools… (ouch, sorry, couldn’t resist that one)

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