Six years ago, when I started my internship at Dragoman, I knew that my translations needed a lot of polishing, yet I was confident in my language skills. I had one or two tricks up my sleeve that would surely get my translation career on a sound footing. A few habits that got me through boring college essays were my overabundant use of relative clauses (a tendency shared by nearly all Turkish speakers) and opening a thesaurus to hunt for a word that no one uses. And then Dragoman happened, and it changed my whole perspective on powerful writing. I met a lot of editors and translators willing to share their expertise. Unfortunately, college curriculums for translation studies are not generally designed to help students become better writers, which is a shame since good translators are also good writers and they can translate for impact. After years of practice and training, especially with native English speakers, I now know better to admit that there is always room for improvement.
As a senior Dragoman copyeditor, I want to share a few secrets that we use to create clear, concise, and impactful sentences in English.
Careful use of relative clauses
Relative clauses are often overused in Turkish to English translations. This mostly stems from the Turkish language structure that encourages giving supplementary information in noun or adjective clauses at the beginning of a sentence. In Turkish, it feels natural and even preferable to use clauses instead of creating a separate sentence from the clause and using a conjunction (like “and”) to bind the ideas together.
However, superimposing Turkish sentence structure onto English leads to weak sentences in English, especially when used repetitively in the same paragraph. Let’s consider this excerpt:
Turkish source: Yeşil teknolojiler ve sürdürülebilirlik alanında faaliyet gösteren girişimcilere yönelik bir hızlandırma programı olan Greenway, 2019 yılından beri kurumsal aktörler ve girişimcileri buluşturmaya devam ediyor. Bu yıl dördüncüsü düzenlenecek olan program kapsamında tarım ve sanayi atıkları ile evsel atıkların geri dönüşümüne yönelik yenilikçi teknik ve teknoloji üreten veya yerlileştiren startupların güçlendirilmesi amaçlanıyor.
Draft English translation: Greenway, which is an acceleration program for entrepreneurs in green technologies and sustainability, has brought together corporate actors and entrepreneurs since 2019. Within the scope of the program, which will be held for the fourth time this year, it is aimed to strengthen startups that produce or localize innovative techniques and technologies for the recycling of agricultural, industrial, and domestic waste.
Improved English translation: Greenway is an acceleration program addressing entrepreneurs in green technologies and sustainability and has brought together corporate actors and entrepreneurs since 2019. The fourth rerun of the program this year aims to strengthen startups that produce or localize innovative techniques and technologies for the recycling of agricultural, industrial, and domestic waste.
The draft translation contains multiple clauses at the beginning of sentences, in an attempt to reflect Turkish sentence structure exactly in English. As you can see, it causes a stilted, unnatural discourse in English. In order to improve fluency, we can turn the first clause into an individual sentence and use “and” to combine the two sentences. As I said, even though this is not often preferred in Turkish and may even rub native Turkish speakers the wrong way, it helps you sound more native in English. It also highlights the focus of the sentence (Greenway) more powerfully at the beginning of the paragraph. Remember, unlike Turkish, English sentences often showcase the focus at the beginning of paragraphs or sentences, so you may want to move your focus to the front to translate for impact.
And for the second clause, we can just reduce it to “the fourth run” to form a shorter, smarter sentence.
Turkish source: Bu yıl, ülkelerin savunma bütçelerini arttırdığı ve çekişmeli teknoloji yarışlarının devam ettiği koşullarda, SHIELD 2021’de 43. sırada olduğu dünya savunma sanayi kuruluşları listesinde 35. sıraya yükselmiştir.
Draft English translation: In an environment where countries increased their defense budgets and the competition in technology is being intensified, SHIELD moved up to 35th place among the global defense companies, up from 43rd place in 2021.
Improved English translation: This year, the world saw an increase in defense budgets against the fierce international technological competition. Meanwhile, SHIELD moved up to 35th place among the global defense companies, up from 43rd place in 2021.
Instead of creating a compound sentence to avoid using a clause, we may also form an entirely separate sentence. In this example, this helps us to set the stage for the main idea of the paragraph. Additionally, cutting the Turkish-like “in an environment” and transitioning to the active voice lends a more eloquent touch to the text.
Please note that I do not mean to minimize the role of relative clauses in English or say never to use them at the beginning of sentences. Just be careful if you consider using them to mirror Turkish sentence structures and grammar rules. Check if there might be a better way to write better. Also check this article on reducing relative clauses.
Keeping subjects and verbs as close as possible
Let’s not wander too much away from structural mirroring. Although they come down to the same principle, it is important to provide a special heading for subject and verb placements in Turkish and English. The basic word order in Turkish is Subject + Object + Verb whereas, in English, it is Subject + Verb + Object. So, when translating into English, it is generally preferable to keep subjects and verbs as close as possible to write impactful sentences. Your Turkish streak may urge you to put the verb at the end (usually by preferring the passive voice) and pull the object to the middle (by creating a clause). It is often a good idea to resist that urge to translate for impact. Consider the following example:
Turkish source: İlgili kişilerin kişisel verileri, yalnızca 1. Maddede sayılan amaçlar dahilinde ve bu amaçlarla sınırlı olarak, KVKK’de belirtilen temel güvenlik ve gizlilik ilkeleri çerçevesinde yeterli önlemler alınarak yetkili kamu kurum ve kuruluşlarına aktarılabilir.
Draft English translation: The personal data of data subjects, only for limited and specified purposes under Article 1 and by providing the appropriate level of protection within the fundamental security and privacy principles in the LPPD, may be transferred to authorized public organizations and institutions.
Improved English translation: The personal data of data subjects may be transferred to authorized public organizations and institutions only for limited and specified purposes under Article 1 and by providing the appropriate level of protection as is required by the fundamental security and privacy principles in the LPPD.
Bringing the subject and the verb closer helps readers to understand the main point of the sentence from early on. In the draft translation, readers have no clue about the topic (data transfer to public institutions) until the very end but are bombarded with extra information in the middle. This might be natural for Turkish readers but not for English ones. So, consider recasting until you bring the verb as close as possible to the subject. On another note, it is also possible to further improve the improved translation by getting rid of the passive voice. If you are interested, check out this article: Converting Passive to Active – Translating Audit Reports into English
CAT tools have made translators’ lives a lot easier. However, many translators complain that they lose focus because they cannot see the document / page as a whole. CAT tools divide the text into segments (mostly sentences) and provide you with an Excel-like table. This might make it hard for some of us to follow the flow of the text. Sometimes we immerse ourselves in the translation so much that we forget when the paragraph begins and ends. A more common issue is that we might unintentionally use the same words, verbs, or sentence structures over and over and not realize it until we export the output from the CAT tool. Repetitive source material does not help in this matter, either.
Using different sentence structures helps improve the overall quality of your writing. See this example:
Turkish source: Geniş müşteri portföyümüz ve katma değerli ürünlerle sektörün sürdürülebilir ekonomik büyümesinde önemli bir rol üstleniyoruz. İnovasyon ve Ar-Ge gücümüzle sektörde aranan ürünleri geliştiriyor, sektörümüze yeni teknolojiler kazandırıyoruz. Geliştirdiğimiz teknolojilerle müşterilerimizin sürdürülebilirlik performansına da katkı sağlıyoruz.
Draft English translation: With our diverse customer portfolio and value-added products, we play a key role in the sustainable economic growth of the industry. With our innovation and R&D power, we develop sought-after products and help spread new technologies in the industry. We also contribute to the sustainability performance of our customers with the technologies we develop.
Improved English translation: With our diverse customer portfolio and value-added products, we play a key role in the sustainable economic growth of the industry. Making good use of our power in innovation and R&D, we develop sought-after products and help spread new technologies in the industry. The technological solutions we engineer also contribute to the sustainability performance of our customers.
In line with the Turkish source, the first two sentences in the draft translation have “with” structures at the beginning. We also see another “with” in the last sentence. As a result, the reading is not smooth and falls flat. In this case, varying our phrase usage would enhance the readability of the target material. Keeping the first sentence the same, we can change the second “with” to “making good use of,” which strengthens your sentence. And to avoid using the third “with,” we can just transform it into the subject of the sentence. Hawk-eyed readers might also notice the change from “the technologies we develop” “to “the technological solutions we engineer.” This is done to refrain from using “develop” twice consecutively.
Finding a better word
This last tip requires a lot of practice and research effort. Do not take it lightly. Finding a better word means stepping out of your comfort zone and searching for words that best suit the context. It is hard to break a habit and reject using your comfort words. You need to rummage through similar articles, books, newspapers, web pages, and reports. You need to keep yourself up-to-date with market or industry trends. For instance, for the English translation of “gıdaya uygun” when talking about a material safe for human consumption, taking the literal approach “fit for food” would make you sound less professional. The correct terminology would be “food-grade.” Similarly, the better translation of “hava şartlarına karşı dayanıklı” is “weatherproof” instead of “resistant to weather conditions.” For tips on how to search the web for your translations, this article might be helpful: Searching the web — the golden rule of translation
As you can see, all these principles have a common denominator: Avoiding word-for-word translation. Respect the unique feel of each language to produce impactful translations. This was (and still is) the first lesson that Dragoman teaches its team.