Translating Spanish – How to Get Started

Spanish comes second only to Mandarin in terms of the number of native speakers in the world today. Wikipedia alone has over four hundred thousand articles in Spanish. Clearly, there’s an awful lot of information out there in Spanish and a lot of people who want to understand what’s being said. If you speak Spanish in addition to your own language and enjoy writing, you might want to consider taking up translating Spanish.

Where to Begin

One good place to start is magazines. Look for Spanish Magazine  bilingual magazines published in a Spanish-speaking country, subscribe to them, and check out the translations. What kind of terms do they use? Could you do a better job? Does the subject matter interest you? This may not be important later on, but you’ll need to be highly motivated at the start. Try your hand at translating one of the articles and then compare your work with their translation. Is it similar? What did they do differently to you? For practice, here’s a sentence from a translation I did a few years ago:

Muchos autoritarismos electorales han iniciado un proceso de apertura desde la periferia subnacional, al comenzar por experimentar elecciones con cierto grado de limpieza e imparcialidad en esos ámbitos, dejando todavía cerrada la competencia para las elecciones de autoridades en el ámbito nacional.

Much electoral authoritarianism has begun a process of liberalization from the subnational periphery, as it begins to experience elections which are, to a certain degree, clean and fair at this level, whilst competition is still closed for the election of authorities at national level.

I’m not really happy with this translation now. I think the sentence is too long and too confusing. What would you do to make it better?

Human versus Machine Translation (MT)

You may be wondering whether people still need translators. After all, you can get free translations on the Internet these days. While it is true that services such as Google Translate and Babelfish have improved a lot since the early days, there will always be a need for translators. They’re fine for getting the gist of an email, but I wouldn’t use them for serious translation. Here’s a random example from Babelfish:

En las casas todos los servicios se ubican a nivel del sótano; la planta baja contiene las áreas sociales volcadas al exterior a través de un gran cristal, protegido por un pergolado metálico que remata en un muro recubierto de cantera blanca.

In the houses all the services are located concerning the cellar; the ground floor contains the overturned social areas to the outside through a great crystal, protected by a pergolado metalist who ends in a covered wall of white quarry.

Here’s my translation:

All services are located at basement level, whereas the first floors contain social areas. These face the outside through large windows that are protected by metallic pergolas fitted into walls covered in white finished stone.

As you can see, translation isn’t just a word-for-word process–it involves thought and cultural awareness. You need to consider the context of the text you’re translating as well as the vocabulary. This is something a machine will never get completely right. Until someone comes up with Artificial Intelligence, of course, and then we’re all out of a job!

Tools of the Trade

Joking apart, computers are obviously very useful for translators. Your first tool is the word-processor, and it’s worth learning all the shortcuts you can to make the job go quicker. The less time you spend using the mouse, the more time you have for typing. One tip which might be useful is to find the parallel view function in your word-processing program so that you can see both source and target texts at the same time. This way, you avoid missing out chunks from the source text.

Specialised dictionaries are also a godsend when you get into more specific areas. For example, as I have done quite a lot of legal agreements, I use a Spanish to English legal dictionary for Mexican legal terms. I also have a dictionary of Mexican terms for translating cultural terms. Terminology is obviously crucial to making a natural-sounding translation in your area.

Internet Tips

The Internet is just as useful. I subscribe to an online dictionary service to check definitions quickly and efficiently, using both Spanish to English and Spanish language functions. If that doesn’t come up with the term I need, search engines such as Google, Yahoo or Live Search can be very useful for concordancing purposes. Simply by typing in a phrase, you will learn how it is used in context. Here’s what I got when I wanted to understand the phrase retorno sobre el capital.

Retorno–(Economía): Definición
Retorno sobre el capital Cálculo en porcentaje de la utilidad neta que una compañia puede obtener para sus accionistas, es la relación financiera más…

The same trick works in reverse if you want to check whether your translated phrase works. You’ll notice that your search terms are highlighted in bold in the results. The closer together those search terms appear, the more likely it is that your term is in common use. Here’s an entry which showed up well in Google when I was checking to see if effective radiated power was a true phrase:

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