• Sijin Xian

How A Translator Thinks: My A-B-C Method

Updated: Feb 3

I caught a glimpse of a tweet by a Spanish translator, where he detailed his thought process when translating the first sentence of a book he was working on. The general idea was that there were all these intricacies of cultural, grammatical, and contextual considerations for the word choice between to "call," "phone," or "ring up" and whether the tone should be formal or casual. Though unable to grasp all the nuances as a non-Spanish speaker, I was inspired to share some of the puzzles I encountered in my recent projects as well.

Something I take great pride in as a translator is my natural and idiomatic rendition. Stiff writing that reads "translated" is my mortal enemy. Toward the end of a podcast interview two years ago, I used the analogy of three boxes to describe my translation process. I will elaborate on this method with some examples in this blog post.

Imagine there are three boxes: A, B, and C. Inside box A is what the source text said--the words; and box B is where you store your understanding on a cognitive level--the idea, the intention, the context, and the message. And box C is your translation.

Box B is where the magic happens and what differentiates a human translator and a robot. Imagine this scenario: I was getting ready to take a walk with my husband. He was already waiting by the door and asked, "could you check if my green hoodie is on the back of my chair?" I confirmed and brought that hoodie to him to the door, a very human wife thing to do--a robot would only say "affirmative" and do nothing else.

That's why the defining characteristic of a skilled translator is their ability to move beyond word-for-word equivalence and convey what's beneath the surface. Now, consider the example "to identify a news story." If one jumps directly from box A to C, they are likely to produce strange and nonsensical phrasings such as 辨识新闻故事 or 识别新闻报道. Instead, we need to ponder over this in box B and mine would look something like this:

What does it mean to "identify a story"? This phrase brings to mind a bunch of media people trying to brainstorm or research what could be newsworthy and of interest. Okay, and what do we call this in Chinese? This activity is often referred to as 挖掘新闻素材 (literally translated into digging up raw ingredients for news, which would make no sense to English readers--it works both ways). Voila, problem solved.

Here's another example: bring clarity to one's life. Going from box A straight to C gives you 使你的生活更加清晰. But that doesn't make any sense to a native Chinese reader unless it's an ad campaign for an optician. This phrase essentially refers to having a better understanding of what life is all about. And what's the Chinese phrase for this idea? 活得更通透. Mission accomplished.

Another situation where the A-B-C method can prove beneficial is when reflecting the tone. A simple example would be the phrase I told you so. If we were to skip box B and render it as 我这么告诉过你, the accusatory tone of "you should've listened to me" would be lost entirely. So instead, a more accurate translation should be 我就说吧 or 谁叫你不听我的, depending on the context.

In a nutshell, translation is not a linear process of converting 22 into twenty-two. There has to be a middle zone, box B, where you store and process the cognitive data. Remember, it is the thoughts that you are rewriting in a different language, not the words themselves.

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