Rules for Translators

I was recently invited to guest-blog on M. Lynx Qualey’s website Arabic Literature (in English). She’s begun asking translators around the world to provide her with a list of ten rules for translating, and since this sounded like a fun assignment, I signed right up. So what are my rules for translating? Click over and have a look. And then you can look to see how some of my translator colleagues responded to her request. It’s always good to hear what translators think about when they approach their craft.
Oh, and to elucidate Rule #6: Roget’s International Thesaurus is a book that belongs on the desk of every serious translator into English. I’ve been working with it for years. The great William Weaver used the same one when he was still translating (I know because I saw it on his dining room table, where he liked to work). What separates this reference work from other dictionaries of synonyms is that it is arranged not alphabetically but by category. If you open it up at the beginning and start reading, you’ll find the categories “Birth,” “The Body” and “Hair,” followed some hundred pages later by “Excitement,” “Inexcitability,” “Contentment” etc. An alphabetical index at the back directs you to the appropriate category, or in most cases categories – you’re asked to specify which sense of a particular word you’re looking for. Under “inquietude,” for example, you’re asked to choose between synonyms that fall under the sub-headings “unpleasure,” “excitement,” “anxiety,” “trepidation” and “agitation.” Under each thematic category, the words are grouped by parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, phrases. This is what makes this book such a powerful tool for the translator, since it very often happens that an idea embodied by one part of speech in the original text might best be handled in the translation using a different part of speech altogether. “What’s that verb that’s like the noun ‘indolence’?” Roget’s has some suggestions for you: “idle,” “loll” “lounge,” “loiter,” “dally,” “dawdle” and many many others, dozens of others. “Trifle,” “dabble,” “fribble,” “footle,” “putter,” “potter,” “piddle,” “diddle,” “doodle,” etc. No online synonym finder can come even close. And a shopping tip: the presence of the name “Roget’s” in the title does not guarantee an indexed edition; if the words “in dictionary form” appear anywhere on the cover, this is not the book I’m talking about.

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  1. I’m a full-time literary translator from English into Italian, and I found your 11 Rules for Translators very interesting (and your blog too). I reposted them on my blog, with some brief comments from my own perspective.
    You can find them here:
    Thank you!

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