I thought it would be interesting to go a little bit behind the scenes and talk about how I work on a translation, using the example of one of my current projects, the journaling handbook, “WortWerk”, by Gabriele Andler.

Of course it starts with a client making contact; in this case Gabriele sends me a mail. It turns out I’ve been recommended to her by another of my clients, which is lovely. Often I don’t get to see my clients face-to-face, but in this case Gabriele and I are able to meet in person for a kick-off meeting and get to know each other. Gabriele is based in Illingen, in the German state of Saarland— about 160 km drive from me. So we decide to meet in between and go for a nice coffee in Bad Dürckheim!

We chat for a while about our backgrounds (we’re both SAP alumni!), our interests (we’re both into mindfulness and write haiku!) and what our aims are for Gaby’s book and in particular the English translation. I’m extra excited about this project because the topic of mindfulness is one that’s close to my heart, and I already feel that this is going to be a fruitful collaboration. We decide to set up a Trello board to keep track of things, and Gaby gives me a copy of WortWerk. Although PDFs and Word files are very practical, it’s lovely to hold the real thing in my hands.

After that it’s time for me to get to work. In general I start by reading the text to get a feel for the subject matter, the author’s style and the level of formality. If it’s a long text, like in this case, I’ll read the first few pages and then skim through the rest to get a feel for the structure and see what’s coming. In WortWerk, Gabriele talks about what journaling is, describes her method, and then offers a sentence prompt for each day along with an inspiring quote. Her style is conversational and friendly.

When I start translating, I like to do a smooth, continuous first pass, getting into the flow of the writing. At this stage my aim is to capture each idea or concept in the German sentence and get something down in English, but there might still be some reworking and polishing later before the final version emerges. I find it works better for me if I keep going, find my flow, and then come back for a second pass to check and polish the English when I have more distance from the German text.

In the case of Gaby’s book I decide to ignore the quotes in my first pass, as I know that they’ll take more time to research and think about. That’s a different kind of task from translating, and I like to focus on one thing at a time.

As I go through my first translation pass, I make a note of anything that needs more research or is unclear, or that I need to discuss with the author. Sometimes I might find a typo in a German source text, or notice that a German sentence is ambiguous. Those things get noted on an Excel sheet and passed on to the author later. I don’t consciously proof-read the German text, but if I notice something then I’ll always pass it on.

One thing I find in Gaby’s book involves a meditation exercise using the word “Klarheit” (clarity). Breathing in, you say the first syllable “Klar-“, and as you breathe out, you say the second syllable: “-heit”. But the English word “clarity” clearly has three syllables, so it doesn’t fit as well with the exercise. I make a note to brainstorm alternatives and check with Gaby.

I have a couple of questions about the quotes, too, and—very important!—about the English title. All those things get noted so that we can work through them next time we talk.

Time permitting, I like to let my translations rest for a bit, perhaps coming back to them after a break or after finishing another job. On my second pass I compare the German and English again, to make I’ve got the sense of it right and have captured all the ideas. I also clear up or improve the English sentences where necessary. Sometimes I’ll feel like I’ve been struggling through the first pass, but when I come back I find that what I’ve written is much better than I thought! Other times I’ll come back to the translation after a break and suddenly think of the perfect word or see how I might change a sentence around to make it flow better.

When that’s done, I’ll step back from the translation again if possible—in the case of a longer text ideally overnight—and come back to it with fresh eyes for a read-through of the English text by itself. I often read my translations aloud, as that gives a good indication of whether the text flows well. I’ll make a few final tweaks, and then do another final proofread and (for a longer text like Gaby’s book) a final pass to make sure the formatting is in the right places. It helps to focus on one thing during each pass – that way you’re less likely to miss something.

With Gaby’s book I’ll be getting to that part in the next few days… and I can’t wait to hear how she likes her English translation!