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I insisted many times on the importance of test translations – short texts you give to a potential translator for the to translate and return. I recommend that you give the result to native speakers of the target language (the language your book is being translated into) and ask them to review the translator’s work. In this post, I’m going to suggest a checklist to present those rewievers with. You may take it as it is, ask your reviewers to concentrate on some elements more than on others, or add more questions. What I recommend against is simply asking the reviewers “Just tell me what you think of this”: that doesn’t provide them with any criterion and may even lead them to mistake a bad translation for an acceptable one. By contrast, if you ask them to focus on specific aspects, they will be able to judge the translator’s work and tell you if they are worth your money.

Without further delay, here’s the checklist!

1. Does the Translation Sound Natural?

Did you, as a native reader of language X, feel that the language flows naturally? Were there weird constructs? Did any passage feel like it was translated too literally? Were you sometimes able to “see through” the translation and find traces of the original language?

This is perhaps the most important point. If the translation sounds “broken”, it’s not a good translation. Everything else – mistranslations, bad word choices, typos – can be corrected, but a translation that sounds unnatural shows a fundamental lack of skill on the translator’s part. Do not waste your money on them.

2. Was the Punctuation Correct?

Were all commas, full stops, etc. in the right place? Did the translator follow every punctuation rule of Language X?

This aspect is often overlooked. I’ve read dozens of Italian translation of English books that still used the Oxford comma, or put a comma instead of a colon before dialogue tags. The resuls was an unpolished, shoddy translation that looked like it was done lazily. You don’t want to give your readers lazy work.

3. What about the Grammar?

Same as above. Did the translator follow every rule and convention? Did they make mistakes? Did they improvise?

Bad grammar can really kill the mood of a story. I’m not referring only to gross mistakes like the use of a wrong tense: even putting the adjective before the name it refers to, instead of after it (the common rule with Italian adjectives) can make the translation sound weird. Weird-sounding translations take the reader out of the story, and that’s never good.

4. Could You See the Message of the Story?

Did you spot any central idea from the language used in the translation? In other words, did you feel like the wording in some places had been chosen to convey a specific mood? If the author told you that they used lots of religious references in the original, could you spot them in the translation?

Test translations are short, but they can – and they should – be chosen among the most pregnant parts of your novel. What is important here is that your translator should have the intelligence to get the reference and the integrity to reproduce it. If in the original manuscript a character aks a waiter to “take this cup away from me”, and the translator doesn’t even bother to convey a similar feel, chances are that they’re not the person you want to work with.

5. Is the Language of the Translation Proper?

Did you feel like the translation was particularly vulgar or, conversely, particularly chaste? Did you find the language particularly lyric, or street-like, or anything else?

This is a very important question for target languages who have many different degrees of courtesy, ie. Japanese. Choosing the wrong forms is the best way to raise a red flag in the reader’s mind. This isn’t limited to dialogue, either: give the same text to a dozen translators and see how they translate the various uses of “fuck” (I hope nobody gets offended by seeing that word here, by the way). The use of the wrong kind of language may turn readers away.

As usual, if you want to give your contribution or simply want to ask me a question, leave a comment or contact me via mail. I always reply. 🙂

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