Translation Tip Project – in English

By popular request (of sorts), I am translating my latest blog post into English. This post was part of a blog project initiated by Yael Cahane-Shadmi: several Israeli blogger/translators were invited to post their "ultimate" tip for translators, and comission a tip from another translator. I went a bit overboard and ended up with a whole bunch of tips from some of my translator friends.

Here, first, is my tip:

If you don't understand the text you've read, there's no way you'll be able to translate it well. This is true on both the macro and the micro level. To me, for example, finances are a foreign language, and I wouldn't volunteer to translate financial columns. On the micro level: it's important to be able to identify when a sequence of words is likely to be an idiom unfamiliar to you. Taking an idiom apart and translating it word for word will not lead to a correct translation. That's how a particularly infamous error came about: an Israeli subtitle translator who did not recognize the name Christian Slater, chose to translate the name as two separate words – a christian slate-layer. (This error became a meme in some circles in Israel and has been printed on tshirts; it's now used as a term for sillly translations that reveal a basic misunderstanding). While not recognizing Christian Slater's name is forgiveable in my mind, producing a translation that made so little sense in the given context should have raised an alarm. Anytime you run into something that just doesn't make sense, doesn't fit in and is unclear to you – you should probably assume that the problem lies in your comprehension, not in the original. Perhaps you have a blind spot, and should do a little research. You can turn for advice to other translators, to whoever comissioned the translation or to a source familiar with the topic of the text you are translating. Save yourself from embarassment. One of the qualities of a good translator, in my opinion, is the ability to know when you don't know enough, and to learn.


And now for the guest translators tips. I first turned to Yael Achmon, who has translated tons of popular fiction and fine literature, including the Hunger Games trilogy, "The Hobbit" and the Percy Jackson books. Yael is a great friend of mine and as a publisher I've always loved working with her.


 Yael writes (originally in Hebrew, I translated): "Edits are your friends. It's not easy getting our perfect translation-baby back covered in red marks, but in a profession in which most work is done alone, the best way for a translator to grow professionally is to take edits seriously. I'm not saying you need to accept all edits as gospel, but do put your ego aside, try not to quibble or be bitter, and learn from them. Some of my most significant and fascinating translation experiences have taken place during discussions held with the editor of the translated text."


Next is line is Laura Watkinson. Laura is a celebrated Dutch-to-English translator based in Amsterdam. One of her noted recent translations is "The Letter for the King" by Tonke Dragt. She has a website at:


Here are Laura's tips, in her own words:

"Talking to yourself should be encouraged. Reading your translation out loud, particularly the dialogue, can help you to find out which bits aren't working so well. Also, collaborating with other translators can give you a new angle on your work and show you other possibilities, whether it's by exchanging and critiquing translations or by working together on a book, as I've done with Michele Hutchison on some graphic novel projects. Oh, and always give your translated text a couple of weeks of drawer time before you come back to polish the final version. That distance can be really helpful."


Now we come to translator Jessica Cohen. Jessica is an independent literary translator. She has translated award-winning works of fiction and non-fiction from Hebrew into English by some of the finest contemporary Israeli writers, including David Grossman, Amir Gutfreund, Tom Segev and Yael Hedaya. She is also a childhood friend of mine: when Jessica first came to Israel we lived in the same building, I was in first grade and she in second, and we became fast friends. Jessica introduced me to some of my favorite British Children's authors.


Jessica Cohen, in her own words:

"The most important piece of advice I ever received, I think, was to read every translation (and really everything important you ever write) out loud before doing a final round of revisions. Ideally, print it out and go somewhere other than your office (or wherever you usually work) — the change of setting and the vocalization of the words will almost certainly let you hear things you were not aware of in previous drafts."


Here's a tip from BJ Epstein. Bj is a Swedish-to-English translator, copy editor, writer, and lecturer in literature, and her website is I've met BJ at a couple of conferences now and I particularly enjoy her insights on the translation of children's literature.


BJ Epstein, in her own words:

"I think the tip I’d offer beginning translators is to dare! Take on a variety of different types of translation. Too often, we stick with a narrow range (whether it’s all poetry, for example, or just cookbooks) and feel like we shouldn’t translate in a field in which we don’t have expertise. While I agree with that to a certain extent, I also think we can and should learn on the job. Personally, I’d turn down a translation job that might have life-altering consequences (i.e. pharmaceutical texts or someone’s adoption/marriage/other legal documents), unless I was certain I understood the terminology, and I’d also say no to literary texts where I felt I just couldn’t get the tone/rhythm/etc. right. But I do feel that we can learn a lot by studying a text and doing additional reading so that even if we aren’t experts the way someone in that field might be, we know enough to confidently translate. It’s a great feeling to learn something new while producing a good text."


Last but not least, Adriana JacobsAdriana Jacobs teaches Modern Hebrew Literature at Oxford University where she is also involved with the comparative criticism and translation research program.  She translates from Hebrew to English and prefers to translate poetry over prose.  Her translations of Hezy Leskly, Anna Herman, Harold Schimmel, Roman Baembaev, and Maya Arad, among others, have appeared in print and online.


Adriana's tip, in her own words:

"This is tip #8 from my “Ten Rules for Translating Poetry”: Translate punctuation, breaks, indentations, etc. These elements of a poem are as meaningful as the words themselves and are not equivalent between languages or conventionally applied in poetry.  In translation, a comma may appear or disappear, or become a dash or a break.

"I’m always struck when a poem in translation reproduces exactly the punctuation of the original text.  Doing so implies that punctuation is equivalent between languages—that a question mark in Hebrew means the same thing as a question mark in English—or that a hyphen in Hebrew functions as it does in English.  It may turn out that this is the case for a particular poem—but punctuation in poetry also serves to create and disrupt continuities, relations, flows and rhythms in and between lines.  Punctuation in poetry often does not abide by conventional usage—this must be taken into account.  My advice to a beginning translator of poetry is to be attentive to punctuation and to treat it as material that must also undergo translation."


That's it from me. Following are links to posts by other Israeli translators who participated in this blogging project. Most are in Hebrew, but not all.  (WordPress is being a pain about copying links so for now I'll only link to those blogs that have English. You can link to the rest from my original post in Hebrew.)

* Nina Rimon Davis' blog, "Take Nina's Word for it", is in English: נינה רימון דיוויס

* Inga Michaeli includes a guest tip in English from Sarah Yarkoni: אינגה מיכאלי 

* Inbal Saggiv-Nakdimon 

* Yael Sela-Shapiro

* Shlomit Ouziel

* Shirley Finzi Loew

* Tami Eylon Ortal

* Tomer Ben Aharon

* Danit Ben Kiki

* Yael Cahane Shadmi

* Pe'er (Pierre) Friedmann

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