Volume 17, No. 4 
October 2013

Paula Gordon


Front Page


Index 1997-2013

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
How I Learned the Alphabet—and a Few Other Things Along the Way
by Kenneth Kronenberg
Jane Maier, Candidate for ATA's Board of Directors
by Marion Rhodes

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant and Worker Bee
Driving the Bus both Ways
by Danilo Nogueira and Kelli Semolini

  From the Editor
Time to Change the Guard
by Gabe Bokor

  Translation Nuts & Bolts
Translation Workflow
by Paula Gordon

Humor in Conferences
by Luis D. González and Glenda M. Mejias

  Advertising Translation
The challenges of translation of tourist e-text
by Vasyl Stefanyk

Translators Around the World
Remembering Sarajevo
by Midhat Ridjanović

Translators and the Computer
Social Investments
by Jost Zetzsche
  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

  Translators' Tools
Translators’ Emporium

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
  Translation Journal
Nuts & Bolts

Translation Workflow

by Paula Gordon

If you have worked with translation agencies in the past few years, or if you follow trends in translation, you’ll be familiar with the phrase “translation workflow.” Almost every large translation agency has a page on its website dedicated to mapping the life cycle of a document “from initial linguistic analysis to final DTP.” Often the actual act of translating is only mentioned in passing, one step out of a dozen or so—for instance, “Step 6: Translation completed and returned to project manager.”

Missing from most agency workflow pages is the acknowledgment that translators have their own multistep process and that, even in the best of circumstances, they must make quite a few independent decisions. (Does a translator exist who has never been told, “Use your best judgment”?)

This lack of detail about the act of translation itself prompted me to create my own translation workflow—I wanted to show my direct clients and agency clients alike the time and effort I invest in their projects. At first I was satisfied with charting my “ideal workflow” in a blog post: http://dbaplanb.wordpress.com/2012/09/01/translation-process/. But then I wondered—as I often wonder about the complicated processes illustrated on agency websites—was this just an ideal or could I identify each step in my workflow as I was translating?

I selected a relatively simple news item from the BBC Serbian news feed. I chose the article because it was short and declarative, because I found the subject interesting, and because I knew that I could compare my translation with the original English text once I had finished.

The main difference between the documentation that follows and my real workflow is that I don’t usually track my changes in the initial drafts or save each draft for posterity. Nor do I document every decision in as much detail as I have done here, although I do make notes and bookmark websites to justify my decisions and to serve as background for queries should I find it necessary to consult the client.

So here goes. The trepidation I feel about putting my initial errors and false starts out there for my translation colleagues to see is a topic for another article.


(a) Preparation:
Read source documents and client-provided background materials (none in this case); flag problem terms and passages.

(b) Research:
Conduct background and term research; request clarification from client if necessary.

I illustrate both preparation and research steps in Figure 1. Normally I wouldn’t highlight every other word; I would just find the answers and make notes in the text or in a separate document.

Figure 1

Following, I list the sources I consulted in my initial research. The superscript numbers correspond to the numbered callouts in the text of Figure 1. (Note that links are provided to show my research methods, and do not indicate endorsement of companies, institutions, products, opinions expressed, or conclusions drawn on the linked pages. Also note that some pages are no longer available.)


1 http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/chernobyl/inf07.html

1 http://www.chernobyl.info/index.php?userhash=910671&navID=156&lID=2 [page no longer available]

Scientist names and institutions

3 http://www.sc.edu

3 http://www.editorialelalmendro.com/2009/03/19/around-chernobyl-fewer-insects/ [page no longer available]

I consulted this page to confirm names—normally, I would look for a related article about the same subject in English for background, but in this case, I wanted to remain “pure” in terms of translation choices. Note that Mousseau’s name is spelled incorrectly in the article I found online, as is the name of the French university—a reminder that translators must not to stop at the first “hit” and should keep searching for reputable and authoritative sources.

4 http://cricket.biol.sc.edu/mousseau/mousseau.html —I found Timothy Mousseau!

5 http://www.u-psud.fr/en/university.html —trying to decide how to treat that French name.

5 http://www.ese.u-psud.fr/pages_perso/spip.php?article47&lang=fr [page no longer available]

And here is Anders Moller—I confirmed the match by identifying publications about ecology of the Chernobyl region on his university page. Question remains as to whether his O is really an Ø.

Nuclear terminology

6 http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/chernobyl-bg.html

I decided to use “power plant,” which seems to be standard American terminology; also read this article for background.

6 Online search of <“nuclear reactor” “reactor unit”> to see how the terms are used in context and by whom, as well as for images.

6 http://www.nucleartourist.com/type/rbmk.htm [page no longer available]

Hard copy resources

2 Benson, Morton. Serbo-Croatian–English Dictionary. 3rd ed. Belgrade: Prosveta, 1993.

7 Šipka, Danko. Dictionary of Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian New Words. Springfield, Virginia: Dunwoody Press, 2002.

Other decisions

  • Will mimic BBC article and use “5%,” but will otherwise spell numbers up to nine; use numerals for 10 and higher and dates.

  • Numbers starting a sentence are spelled out.

  • No smart quotes or automatic dashes (an arbitrary decision in this case).

Now to do some actual translating.

(c) Translation draft #1 (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

Now that I’ve sketched out the translation, I can do a little more research and revise the text. The result is . . .

(d) Translation draft #2 (see Figure 3).

Figure 3

While revising for draft #2, I looked more deeply into Professor Mousseau’s website and research (http://cricket.biol.sc.edu/mousseau/mousseau.html) and answered these questions:

  • Anders Møller spells his name with the special character; I would have to check the style guide or ask the client if special characters were permitted or should be avoided.

  • “University of Paris - Sud” is how the university name appears on the research website, and I will take that as authoritative.

I also visited Professor Mousseau’s Chernobyl project page ( http://cricket.biol.sc.edu/chernobyl/Chernobyl_Research_Initiative/Introduction.html ) for the answers to some other questions, and found the actual paper under discussion, which gave me the answer to these questions:

  • Young birds—He calls these “yearlings,” which, according to my unabridged dictionary, means animals into their second year. He also uses “nestlings” in his paper, but I’m not considering that; because this BBC article is for the general public, I decide to stick with “young birds.”

  • The phrase “exclusion zone” is confirmed; I also find it on other sites in caps as “Chernobyl Exclusion Zone”—usage is mixed, so I decide my rule will be to use lower case.
  • The phrase “cognitive ability” is confirmed by his paper.

From Mousseau’s press coverage page, I found an older BBC article, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-10819027, which is probably the one referred to at the end of the present BBC article. It discusses a reduction in biodiversity, so I will consider this when dealing with the ambiguous sentence at the end (i.e., species diversity is reduced as well as species population).

Reading further on the NRC.gov website, I found “exclusion zone” in lower case. And I found “decommission” as the term for what is done to a nuclear reactor (as opposed to “stop” or “shut off” or “close”). This does not come up in the article, but is something I noticed—a context-specific term.

Because my theoretical client is unavailable for questions, I decide that in the case of any discrepancy between the article for translation and actual scientific publications, the news article reporting and wording should prevail. Otherwise I might end up rewriting the article in English in my own words, which would negate the purpose of the exercise. However, if anything is very awkward, I give myself permission to clarify ambiguities based on my online research (in other words, use my best judgment).

Miscellaneous notes about draft #2:

  • A check of The Chicago Manual of Style confirms a capital P in Professor Timothy M— and the capitalization of Northern Hemisphere.

  • A quick Google search confirms “animal census” (http://www.usgs.gov/science/science.php?term=1353&type=theme).

  • While looking for pictures of the fence or other barricade to help me get the right translation for “fenced off,” I run across a photo essay that might be of interest to anyone intrigued by the subject— http://www.firesuite.com/chernobyl-exclusion-zone-2008-09.html; but despite finding some really amazing pictures there, I do not find an answer to my question.

    As interesting as all of this is, I remember that my theoretical client is waiting for me to finish the translation. So I tear myself away from the photo essay and get back to work. (Getting caught up in the research is all too often part of the workflow as well.)

(e) Bilingual review: Line-by-line comparison with source document for completeness, meaning transfer, and format alignment; then make corrections, resulting in translation draft #3 (see Figure 4).

Figure 4

(f) Take a break.

(g) Clean-up edit: Read for content, sense, and coherence; check spelling and grammar. The result is draft #4 (see Figure 5).

Figure 5

Explanation of changes made:

  • I used the title of the actual paper: Møller AP, Bonisoli-Alquati A, Rudolfsen G, Mousseau TA (2011). Chernobyl Birds Have Smaller Brains. PLoS ONE 6(2):e16862. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016862.

  • I changed “area” to “region.” Why? Because it sounded better to me.

  • I decided to capitalize “Reactor Unit Four” because it is easier to read the sentence with the caps, and it avoids the potential misreading of “four of the Chernobyl nuclear . . .”

  • Added “in” as an implied meaning: the site was closed to the public, but scientists were allowed in.

  • Changed the last sentence—made implicit meaning explicit.

Only two more steps:

(h) Take a break: Resist the temptation to get the translation off your desk; instead, sleep on it. (This is harder than it sounds!)

(i) Proofread: One more read of the English text without reference to the Serbian version, resulting in translation draft #5 (final); tidy up ancillary notes, if any.

Final Translation

In Figure 6 I have placed side by side my final translation (left) and equivalent excerpts of the BBC English text (right). The BBC English article is about twice as long as the Serbian text, so I copied only the paragraphs and sentences that correspond to the Serbian text and my English translation.

Figure 6

The BBC Serbian article is available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/serbian/news/2011/02/110205_chernobyl-birds.shtml and the English version is available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_9387000/9387395.stm.


I began the exercise as a way to verify each step in my “ideal workflow,” and nothing more. But as I documented each step in detail, I was struck by the number of decisions I was called on to make in the course of translating even a straightforward news article. The Serbian text contains ambiguities, misspellings, references to historical fact, terms translated into Serbian from a third language, specialized terminology, and style questions—all par for the course in even “simple” texts.

Now to lobby the agencies I work for to change Step 6 of their workflow to “Steps 6–14: Translation completed and returned to project manager.”

BBC material © BBC, as described on its website. Fair use only.

Original commentary © Paula Gordon, 2011 and 2013.

The author thanks May Fung Danis http://www.mfdanis.com, French to English translator, for reading and commenting on a draft of this article.

A list of tasks performed and decisions made while translating a 200-word news article.

  • Verify spelling of place names and proper names.

  • Identify misspellings and typos in the source text that may confuse meaning.

  • Identify meaning of source terms in context.
  • Identify source phrases that should be translated literally and those that should be translated with target-language terms of art.

  • Identify source phrases that may be descriptive renderings of words or phrases borrowed from other languages (“exclusion zone”).

  • Conversely, determine whether a source phrase is a figure of speech or an actual description (“fenced off,” “walled off,” “cordoned off”).

  • Query client as to target audience— should technical terms stand, be replaced by plain language, or be defined?

  • Identify author’s tone of voice and purpose.
  • Query client about publishing guidelines and follow the preferred style(e.g.,treatment of diacriticals, contractions, compound words, caps, numbers).

  • Ask the client what to do if the source text is vague or factually inaccurate—make corrections in the target text, annotate, or ignore?

  • Ensure correct spelling, grammar, and usage in the target language.

  • Rephrase sentences for more natural sounding target-language text.

  • Break up or combine sentences for better paragraph flow.

  • Choose connecting words well to create a more logical flow of the narrative and/or argument.

  • Ensure overall cohesiveness of the translated text.