Translation Tips from the Catskills: Chris Durban

Translation Tips from the Catskills: Chris Durban

I attended Translate in the Catskills from August 12 to 14, where accomplished translators Chris Durban, David Jemielity, Ros Schwartz and Grant Hamilton offered excellent insights into the work we all do. Each Monday for four weeks I’m going to present what I consider the most intrinsic tips from each.

In her plenary presentation, the inspiring Chris Durban emphasized the following key points that apply to each and every one of us as translators and writers. Below each tip, I have added my own take on the topic:

1. Translators need to take control of the text, not tiptoe around it.

I love this notion. Too often we defer to the source language text, recreating it word-for-word, afraid to make it our own. But the resulting text, the translation, is our own. I believe we have to internalize the text, absorb it, in order to create a target language text that is a fully-formed text in its own right. This approach to translation requires confidence. We don’t always have the necessary faith in ourselves when starting out, and thus stay close to the original text. That’s perfectly understandable. But as we grow and learn, it’s important for us to use our gift, our ability, to step back from the word and sentence level and express the text as a whole.

2. Translators need distance from the text.

To me, this is the second step in the translation process. Once we have taken control of a text, made the translation our own, then we need to step back for a while. You might only have an hour or two if a deadline is tight, but ideally you will take at least a day before doing a final revision of your target language text. Every writer needs distance from their words in order to see them with fresh eyes. Too often we calculate a deadline based only on how long it will take us to translate X number of words. I suggest adding several hours on to that calculation to give yourself the time and distance needed to deliver your very best.

3. Translators must know what good writing is.

Why, you ask? Because translators are writers. When Chris asked who in the room considered themselves a writer, only about a third of hands went up. I found this startling, to be honest, but apparently it’s an improvement over the first time this conference was held in 2009. Translators are writers. Translators are writers. Translators are writers. Perhaps if we say it often enough and promote the notion in blog posts, articles and at conferences, we will all realize how true this is. And to write well, you have to know what good writing is. It’s really just that simple.

4. Translators need time, need to slow down.

If we’re translating 3,000 or 5,000 or 10,000 words a day, we simply can’t be producing premium-quality work. Internalizing a text takes time. Writing takes time. Revising takes time. All of these are necessary steps in the translation process to produce a work that can stand on its own in the target language.

5. Translators need to read and write — A LOT.

I think we all know that translators need to read and write to improve their craft, but it bears repeating. Whatever your area of specialization — art, science, banking, medical –, you need to read texts in those disciplines to be aware of vocabulary, style and usage. But you also need to read widely in other areas for those very same reasons. As writers, we need to practice this art outside of translation as well. Write a blog, write in a journal, write articles for industry publications, write letters. Just write. And study your writing, your style, note your own peculiarities and how these might affect your translation. Try writing using different styles, vary your vocabulary and approach. It will make you much better prepared for any translation that comes your way.

What do you think of these tips from Chris Durban? Do you have anything to add? I’d love to hear from you a comment…





Lisa Carter is an acclaimed Spanish>English translator. Her work has won the Alicia Gordon Award for Word Artistry in Translation and been nominated for an International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Lisa offers translation, editing, professional development and promotion services through her company, Intralingo Inc., at

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  1. Thanks for your summary, Lisa — and I look forward to reading more about Ros, David and Grant’s input. Truly remarkable professionals, all three (and great presenters, too).
    Your point 4 tickles me in particular in that an Italian blogger misquoted my remarks at an event in Portugal last year.
    According to him, “La Durban” advised translators to boost their earnings by *writing faster*. Not surprisingly, the poor man concluded I was nuts/light-years from reality. (I had in fact urged serious translators to *get their writing skills up to speed* :-)).

    • Chris! Thank you for stopping by! I hope I interpreted your presentation correctly. 😉 It was truly motivating to hear you express opinions about translation that I have always held as well. I think I nodded along to every word you said. (Definitely didn’t nod off. 😉
      Many thanks for organizing the event and including such incredible speakers.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with Chris Durban´s comments. You need to take control of and internalise a text…virtually any text… translate it and then sleep on it. In my own experience, if I stuck to simply translating the words in many of my Brazilian Portuguese documents the result would be gibberish. I always try to put myself in the mind of a recipient reader with no knowledge of the original language of a text, and then produce a piece reflecting the kind of English that the reader might find in a respected journal such as “The Spectator”, “The Economist” etc. I keep asking myself ‘How would this bit have been written in real English, by an English-mother tongue writer with zero knowledge of other languages’? The aim is to transmit the message and the spirit behind the words and not the words themselves, always of course ensuring that the message is faithfully transmitted. Look at any Inflight magazine in Spanish or Portuguese (with the so-called English translation in an adjoining column) and you will see the usually lamentable result of trying to manipulate the original words!

    • John – So glad you came by and left a comment! I couldn’t agree more with what you said, and especially like the term “real English”. 😉 Looking at a text through those eyes can be difficult, but you’re spot on that we have to remember readers of our text will likely not know the other language so everything must be perfectly intelligible and well-written. As for in-flight magazines, I must admit that I found an issue of LAN’s last year where all of the translation was just excellent. I even wrote to tell them so!

  3. This is great advice. Many of the translators I’ve met seem to downplay their talent, both in terms of translating and writing. I’ve managed translators extensively and this apparent lack of confidence can be a major drain on productivity. Should I stick close to the source text or reconstruct the text while retaining the meaning? Which synonym most accurately portrays the nuance in the source text? Am I fully confident in the results of my research? While translators turn these questions around in their head, and let’s face it, the most accomplished and experienced translators can probably find no fewer than 20, or even 100 ways to translate a given sentence, the clock ticks and deadlines creep ever closer. In the worst cases, this internal debate leads to not only to decreased productivity, but increased stress and burnout. When I trained translators with high potential, I could usually read their translations and know immediately which passages caused them trouble. So I would ask them to just explain to me in their own words what they thought the source sentence meant, and their verbal explanation was often of better quality than the translation they submitted.

    I’ve often found in my own experience that my first instinct is normally the best when translating, as usually my first instinct results in a far more colloquial, readable translation, exception made, of course, when I have to conduct further research into a certain subject.

    That said, confidence is absolutely key to a strong translation, and also to high productivity.

    I fundamentally disagree with point 4. No one, no matter what their professional qualifications, should be putting limits on people. Telling people that they can’t translate more than xxxx words a day and possibly produce quality work is professional sabotage at its worst. When I completed my translation apprenticeship, I used to translate 6,000 words a day and stay awake at night wondering what was wrong with me because I had it drilled into my brain that standard productivity is 1,500 to 2,500 words a day. Translators who report they can translate 10,000 words a day are run down as amateurs or hacks who don’t appreciate what is involved in producing a high-quality translation, or worse yet, are dismissed as liars. It’s one thing to quote an industry standard to a client; quoting a standard allows us to manage expectations and deal with unforeseeable circumstances. It’s another to reinforce this standard internally as the only acceptable rate within which one can achieve a quality translation.

    As a bit of background, I don’t have a second language. I was raised bilingual from birth, educated bilingually and while I no longer translate full-time, I work and read in both of my languages every day. If you met me on the street, you wouldn’t be able to tell which of my languages was my dominant language, though I work exclusively into English.

    My particular background gives me more intimate knowledge of the source language than most, and I’ve often translated well in excess of 10,000 words a day, and working overtime I’ve translated up to 18,000 words over a 15 hour period, and I would rate my quality as high, if not higher, than my contemporaries. If I were to begin translating again full-time, I have no doubt that I could recapture my prior productivity within a matter of weeks or a few months.

    I’m sure that I’m not the only person who benefits from this particular background; I’ve worked with a few people with similar backgrounds and who are able to produce similar volumes. To those people, I would say that you are very fortunate to have a gift that is extremely valued in today’s society, and that you shouldn’t subscribe to an industry standard, but to find a pace of work and domain of expertise that you find personally satisfying and be confident in what you do. Had my younger self followed this advice rather than feeling like an imposter because I didn’t find translating large volumes of text to be difficult and that there must therefore have been something wrong with me, perhaps I would still be translating full-time today.

    • Chris — Thanks so much for the visit, and for taking the time to set out your thoughts in such a long comment! Lovely. I couldn’t agree more that many translators lack the confidence necessary to do outstanding work, to make the hard decisions, know why they did, and stand by their choices. It’s not an easy thing to do by any means!

      As for volumes, I don’t propose to put limits on anyone’s output, nor do I think that’s what Chris Durban was suggesting. If you can crank out a *draft* of 10,000 words a day, more power to you. But I cannot believe that is client-ready, finished, revised, polished, publication-worthy output. It can’t be. Ask any writer if they could write that many words in a day, submit it and have it published. I don’t believe you’d find one. And translators are writers. Our clients deserve well-crafted translations, not just words on the page. So, sure, pump out a draft. But then words need time to sit before being revised, and revision takes time. There are no shortcuts, no matter how good or fast we might be. In no way do I mean to suggest there is anything “wrong” with you or the way you work, by the way. We just have a difference of opinion. But it’s good to hear both sides, to debate and air our individual points of view. I do hope you’ll keep coming back to do just that!

  4. Thank you for such a quick reply. I know that my opinions on translation aren’t shared by many, and I appreciate that you took the time to read and reply thoughtfully. I hope that we will be able to have more constructive comments back and forth. I’m seriously contemplating a return to translation and sites like yours are getting me back into the mindset of a translator.

    I want to make one thing clear. 10,000 words a day, for me, is a thoroughly researched, drafted, reread and revised document. It is absolutely not a *draft*. Usually, if I have the opportunity, I will then leave the document overnight and revise it a second time the next day (or preferably, 2-3 days later) with a clear mind. Doing that revision in the morning still allows me the time to research, draft, translate and proofread another 10,000 words the following day. I can’t keep up that pace indefinitely, but I can easily average about 7,000 words a day.

    That said, I also know my limitations. I am not a literary translator. I am not a legal translator. While I am able to do high-quality work in scientific and medical domains, there is a limit to my level of expertise. Of course, if I didn’t have a choice but to work in these domains, I would be closer to a productivity of 2,500 words a day. If I read a text and didn’t feel that I could deliver a quality document to the client, I would have no choice but to respectfully refuse the work, stating that I didn’t feel I had the level of expertise required to translate that type of document.

    On the topic of quality, I am of the mind that the true determiner of what consists of a quality translation is the client. I judge myself not by my own standards, but those of my client. I didn’t always feel this way, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve retranslated texts for clients because the first translation was of “too high” quality. I used to cringe at this sort of statement from a client, because the last thing a translator wants to do is to “dumb down” the source text. But it became clear when a client explained to me that in her particular situation, she was distributing materials to readers for whom English wasn’t their first language, so particular care had to be taken to make sure that the sentence structure was clear and not too complicated.

    I fear that even to this day, every translation is viewed as a challenge and opportunity for personal growth, approached in a very academic and antiseptic way. I strongly believe that this is the correct approach in the literary and academic fields. However, much translation is in the areas of administration, process work, informatics, all very “dry” sources, that should be approached in a business-like, process-oriented manner to produce best results.

    I have an unending respect for people who translate more flavorful documents. To me, literary translation is the pinnacle of the profession and the closest to the academic approach to translating. But I’ve seen the mistake of translators trying to use this approach within a business and administrative context, and I believe this creates a disconnect that causes stress.

    So, to answer your question, could I write a 10,000 word short story in a day? Of course not. I couldn’t create a compelling story arc, develop a protagonist that the reader could care about, with an appropriate climax and denouement in the span of an 8 to 10 hour work day. Nor could I translate a 10,000 word short story in a day in a way that makes the reader care about the translation the same way as they care about the source text.

    But I could write a process document in that amount of time, and I can translate one too.

    • Hi again, Chris! It may be that your views are not shared by many because you are a bit of an anomaly. (Said in the kindest possible way… 😉 ) Just as it may not be a good idea to “limit” a number of words per day, nor is it a good idea to suggest to the masses that they can competently translate 10,000 words a day — even for a short period of time. Didn’t Ray Bradbury write Fahreinheit 451 in something like a week? Yes, it can be done. But it isn’t a realistic goal for the vast majority, in my view.

      You’re right, though, that subject matter plays a major role in how many words we can reliably translate in a single day. If it’s a topic you’re supremely familiar with and doesn’t present any major problems or require hours of research, it will certainly take an experienced translator less time. But the majority of what I do doesn’t fall into that camp at all. I am extremely proficient with the legal and banking subjects I accept, but even so I might get a *draft* of 3000 words. For literary, that’s a *really*, *really* good day. Today I worked on one chapter, from about 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a break for lunch and another for a swim. I had read the chapter several times already, and spent a couple of hours considering terminology and various conundrums earlier in the week. I managed to get those 12 pages into the computer, working at a relatively good clip, but they are by no means ready to see the light of day. I’ll revise them at *least* four or five more times over subsequent days and weeks before they’ll be fit for publication.

      We all have different translation gifts, abilities, approaches, processes and methods. Prescribing any one thing to everyone will never work, whether it’s word counts or what constitutes “good” work.

      Again, thanks for weighing in! Keep the comments coming. I like nothing better than the opportunity to interact with readers on anything they read in my posts.



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