english language

Remember when you were at university doing your translation degree. Remember your teachers telling you about the holy grail of translation, the monolingual dictionary?

Monolingual dictionaries, was the reasoning, are much more useful than bilingual dictionaries because they help the translator really understand what a thing is about, by describing the term in question rather than just offering a couple of translations into the target language, without any context to explain them, and thus, they can mislead a translator and you and up using a completely wrong word?


I have not believed this from day one, although some of my colleagues bought into the myth and swore by their monolinguals. That is, their big, fat Collins dictionaries or whatever.

I have refused monolingual dictionaries from day one, and here I am, ten years in the business as a successful translator (even if I say so myself). But I had a nostalgic moment today and suddenly remembered how monolingual dictionaries were sold to us at translators’ school, and how they were made out to be somehow the purer form of the art, as opposed to the linguistic fast food crap that a bilingual dictionary was. Instant lookup of the translation term? How rude!

Have you ever really used monolingual dictionaries, and do they translate to the age of the internet? Maybe I got it all completely wrong? Let’s talk mono and bi in the comments.





This is a guest post from Olga Kellen, an excellent Russian translator who we’ve recently started a collaboration with, about the dangers and annoyances of free automated translation. Hope you enjoy the read!

“I guess any translator has had this experience when a potential client turns to free online translation on their website instead of using a professional to translate the website into a foreign language(s) to get foreign buyers for the site’s product.

Here’s an example of such so called marketing to foreigners through free online translation:

At a beautiful luxury real estate website offering exclusive homes all priced over $1,000,000 in the USA, there is a button “Languages” – for free online translation into a number of languages. I used it for Russian and then translated the so called “Russian” content back to English.

Here’s how these American realtors appear to market their luxury to Russian-speaking website visitors:

“Protected, calm, and extremely particular communities dotted line with the large of the property of apartment buildings in the wide sections with that impressing opinions. With the photo the postcard is the park of tuning elevated the country- style of the stylishness, for pastoral horse passing elegance, [Kombi] enclaves to ensure peaceful solitude and with the bewitching view. These land spreading is shop window the irreproachable selection of many architectural styles, from the Mediterranean to Mizner the [Palm]- whip of Georgian French Regency of British West India, also, beyond its limits. For those, which the prize of rarified of beauty and the infinite views, which it enveloped in the peaceful solitude.”

I won’t go on, it’s the same pity all over the site, and you have the idea.

Their page name “Private Estate Enclave” turned simply into “restroom is the urbanization” – sorry, but that’s what the machine translation does sometimes…

Another convincing argument for NOT using free online translation where it does not belong:

We all know that Canada is a bilingual country. It means government agencies of all levels have to provide people with information and services in both English and French. Private companies do the same as they want to get business from both English- and French-speaking people.

Canadian websites are mostly bilingual – some by law and some by will.

Do they ever use a free translation?I’ll be very much astonished to find at least one company that does that in Canada…

Why not?

They have to serve customers FOR REAL!

Not only don’t they use free translations, they don’t even use their own bilingual staff for translating between the languages, but they hire professional translatorsto do the job properly.

Real Estate Institute of Canada (REIC) has Languages Policy published on their website that says among other things:

Translation: REIC does retain the services of a translator for the translation of the written word. Staff who are bilingual will not be expected to take on a project that requires the use of this specific skill.”

More and more American retailers open a Spanish version of their e-commerce sites. Look at BestBuy, some Amazon sites. They do this not for foreigners, but for Spanish-speaking Americans, who are actually bilingual and could very well use the English sites (!)

Why do retailers do this? Well, they are big companies with big marketing departments; they know what to do to get more sales. They decide to spend money on Spanish websites as their marketing research showed the possibility to earn more if they provide bilingual American population with the chance to read the merchandise descriptions and place orders in their mother’s language.

They don’t disclose the budget for translating and maintaining the new sites of course. They only say that their Spanish websites are not exactly the same as the original English sites, as they take into consideration some differences that targeting the Spanish-speaking population requires. (I don’t know Spanish, but if you do, you can check it for yourself)

Do the retailers use a free online translation for that?



Because they are serious about SELLING to the prospects they target!

So, if somebody wants to market their products or services to people who speak other languages than their own and they really want those foreigners’ business, these are examples to follow for them to look professional in marketing efforts and eventually get sales.

Feel free to use the above arguments to convince your clients not to look foolish in foreign languages instead of getting foreign sales. There are more examples of how companies can really compromise their business with free online translation(they are in English and Russian which are my languages).”

Olga Kellen,

English – Russian translator and Russian internet marketer


know translation clients

Knowing who your clients are will give you a decisive advantage when doing business.

One of the major characteristics of running a translation business, no matter whether you work as a freelance translator or in an agency, is this: You often don’t know who your clients are. And I don’t mean, “You don’t know them well”, as you would if you had a normal business, say, if your were a dentist or a hairdresser. In that case, you would know what they look like, who accompanies them, more or less where they live, and whether they tend to be well-natured or rather ill-behaved. It’s rather a lot of information about a person, if you look at it this way. As a translator, however, more often than not all the information we have on a person boils down to one single piece: their email address.

I think most of you would agree that this is a major disadvantage for translators when dealing with their clients. Age, professional background, nationality, etc. play an important role in knowing how to deal with an individual client, and, last, but not least, which rates to charge them. You will talk to a person your age in a different way than you would to an elderly gentleman, right? It is all too easy to offend a client by using too casual a tone in an email; or the opposite: sometimes clients can be intimidated if the language used is too formal.

Now then, here’s how to find out what’s behind an anonymous email and actually get to know your clients. And they don’t even have to notice you’re “spying on them”. Let’s get started.

LinkedIn and Facebook connectors for Outlook

I’ve said previously I am an Outlook fan. It’s mainly because the software is so feature-complete and extendable. It is mostly because of two absolutely essential plugins that I can never use another email program again: The LinkedIn connector, and the Facebook social connector.


Here’s an email from your client… and, look at this! He sent you a photo with it!

Granted, installation of these add-ins is rather complex. In typical Outlook fashion, the whole operation will fail at least one before finally installing. Or… it might never work. Just make sure you get the correct version of these plug-ins (32- or 64-bit) and good luck to you.

However, once they are installed, these little gadgets are incredibly useful. They are actually the two pieces of ingenious software which have helped me the most in making life easier for me when writing emails to clients, and receiving job offers. They do two things very well: Whenever you receive an email, they pull up the respective profile photos from Facebook and LinkedIn, identifying the author of the email by their respective email addresses. And secondly, you can easily add any person you’ve ever had correspondence with to your LinkedIn profile with one click. By just looking at the photo you gain a whole lot of information. You can guess (more or less accurately, at least) a person’s age and the kind of person they are, which makes dealing with them a whole lot easier.


People search engines

There are numerous of those out there, but the most reliable is 123 People. These search engines allow you to enter a person’s name or email address and promise you to find all data on the internet related to these people (or companies as well). Facebook, Twitter profiles, articles etc. They don’t always work as well as they should do, but trying doesn’t hurt, does it?


Will they pay me?

If you haven’t been paid for work at least once in your professional career, hold your hands up! It’s the very nature of translation work that makes us easy victims for non-paying companies: To translate means to work between two cultures, languages, and often, different countries. To go after a non-payer in a country other than your own is a right hassle, and while it is not impossible for us to eventually get our due thanks to a combination of lawyers, government agencies, and colleagues, more often than now it’s not worth the extra hours put in to get what are often relatively small sums of money.

So, if I can recommend one website for a freelance translator, it has toc Payment Practices. You can get a free trial or sign up for a year-long membership which shouldn’t set you back more than a couple of dollars. Payment Practices’ database contains information on 10057 translation agencies and clients worldwide, 6616 total responses and 1891 comments on those buyers. Agencies are rated by the responses of freelancer translators, so you should always look up new clients and agencies on this website before agreeing to work for someone you do not know. Great website and absolutely worth your money! For a couple of quid you might save thousands…


Which strategies do you use to find out more about your clients? Are you worried at all about working for someone you’ve never met? Any solutions to add to the list? Let us know in the comments.

Check these points before you ask for a translationHelping your translator to help you

If you’re a company looking to do business abroad, getting your translation spot on can be a case of make or break. There have been many translation blunders over the years. Take the example of Clairol, who introduced their “Mist Stick” curling iron into Germany. Unfortunately for them, the pronunciation is very similar to that of the German word “Miststück”, which is a none too flattering word, the German-English translation akin to “bitch” or “bastard”. Hair-curling no, toe-curling most definitely.

To avoid such embarrassing and costly errors, best to prepare well before launching your new venture and to follow a few steps as outlined below.

Brief, and make it long

The most important step. Tell your translator exactly what you need and why. The briefing stage should be a two-way conversation; ask your translator questions and expect questions in return, and listen to their advice. Being clear from the start saves time, money and possible gaffes.

Pitch Perfect

Writers should never forget their audience. Tranlsators are writers. It stands to reason, therefore, that they need to know who and what the translation is for. Tell them. Pitch, tone, style, language, they will vary depending on whether it is an ad or a memo, for example, or if it’s being aimed at Spanish or South American people.

Keep it snappy

Finding the time to trim down a document can be difficult; however, the more text you give to a translator, the higher the cost and the greater the probability of there being errors. Think about what is absolutely necesssary for your target audience and leave out the rest.

Say it with pictures

A picture speaks a thousand words, as they say. What they don’t tell you is that pictures cost little or nothing to translate. Use images, graphs, diagrams, photos, and make more of an impact on your audience, and less of one on your budget.

Put it in neutral

Don’t be too culturally colourful. Colloquialisms, idioms, cultural references, they can all confuse foreign audiences so keep your language plain where possible. If necessary, however, speak with your translator and find out which idioms and ideas can be suitably translated into the target language, and save embarrassing blushes.

Finish before you start

Only give translators final drafts where possible. Trying to save time by translating earlier drafts can go horribly wrong with changes and corrections being lost along the way and errors slipping through the net.

Avoid DIY

Do-it-yourself is for the home – bookshelves, IKEA flatpacks, that sort of thing. When it comes to translation, leave it to the professionals. As much as you may fancy yourself as a fluent and loquacious bilingual, making corrections or additions to your translator’s work – or worse, trying to do the whole thing yourself – can be disastrous.

Finally, bear in mind that translators, or at least the majority of them, are not mind readers. Plan your material well in advance, brief them precisely and work with them throughout the translation process; do this, and prepare to succeed.

Want more tips? Check out this guide to translation and getting it right.

By Mark Heaney

For translators, and the viewing public, dubbing and subtitling can be a far from funny business.

dubbing of the shawshank redemption
Consider the following scene, one of my favourites from The Shawshank Redemption, the one in which the gang are sorting through books in the new library:
HEYWOOD: The Count of Monte Crisco…
FLOYD: Cristo, you dumb shit.
HEYWOOD: …by Alexandree Dumb-ass.
ANDY: Dumas. You boys’ll like that one. It’s about a prison break.
RED: Maybe that should go under educational too.
Simple, beautifully played, and funny. Heywood’s uneducated pronunciation of Dumas (pronounced doo-mah as Andy rightly points out) is a rather unfortunate one. Alexandre Dumb-ass. Unfortunate – but funny.
However, recently, I was watching the movie for the umpteenth time, this time dubbed into Spanish. Since the Spanish pronounce Dumas as doo-mas and since a ‘dooma (or a dumma‘) doesn’t exist, and certainly doesn’t refer to someone intellectually challenged, they translate it as Demas, pronounced de-mas and meaning ‘others’. Alexandre Others. Not funny.
Dubbing has its critics (among which I would most definitely include myself), and with examples such as the previous, it is easy to see why. It is not just humour that is often lost in translation. The voice of the original actor is lost and this, after all, is their main tool, their trademark – their delivery and their ability to inject their voices with emotions such as anger or menace, sadness or fragility, is what sets them apart – or not. Watching Shawshank without the hypnotically dulcet tones of Morgan Freeman? As is the case with some dubbing practitioners, words fail me.

That said, I do have a lot of sympathy for those responsible for translating movies into a foreign language. The challenges they face are many and considerable. Humour, for translators, is definitely no joke – the humour that comes from mishearings, mispronunciations, rhyme, alliteration, puns and metaphors does not readily translate. Expressions that go down well in one country may not quite be another’s ‘cup of tea’. Considerable creativity is required.
Equally, cultural factors also throw up many challenges, things such as social and historical references, customs, accents, dialects and slang. Imagine trying to dub Trainspotting for example, a film that even had to be subtitled for American audiences – and the Scottish and Americans, apparently, speak the same language. Take The Wire also, the slang-riddled hit US series that had to be subtitled in parts for US audiences. In cases such as these, translators often have to introduce concepts that are foreign to their audience, invent new dialects, deliberately make grammatical mistakes, and be highly creative with language – consider the challenges faced by the people behind the dubbing of The Wire into German.

What about subtitles, I hear you say? Well, the same trials of translating humour and culture apply. In addition, translators have less space to do it in; they need to get straight to the point. Generally limited to two lines of subtitles at a time, with each line no longer than 40 characters, long passages of dialogue must be summarised so that viewers are able to digest the subtitles quickly and follow the film. People go to the cinema, after all, to watch and not to read.

As I’m sure you’ll agree, dubbing and subtitling are far from easy tasks. So next time you find yourself hitting rewind to decipher a Texan drawl or an Irish brogue, spare a thought for the poor people who have to translate it.

By Mark Heaney
When it comes to the English language, we all make mistakes. It can be good fun though.

Ever been listening to a song you’ve heard a million times or more, and the penny will finally drop, they’re not saying “I’ll love you til the end” but rather “I hate youdoor english language errors and your friends”? A slight exaggeration perhaps, but I have often run into difficulties when it comes to deciphering song lyrics. Liam Gallagher’s sneering vocals or the inebriated snarl of The Pogues’ Shane McGowan have often had me running for the CD sleeve or for for the lyrics to find out, well, what they are on about.

Seemingly, I am not alone. People have historically misheard all types of highly improbable declarations: Creedence Clearwater Revival speaking of a bathroom on the right (“There’s a bad moon on the rise”); The Stone Roses’ Ian Brown wanting to be a dog, or a door (“I wanna be adored”); Jimi Hendrix politely asking to be excused while he kisses some guy (“Excuse me while I kiss the sky”), and Whitney Houston declaring herself to be Henry Walnut (“I’m every woman”). Now I can’t see why Whitney Houston would have wanted to let people know that she was in fact Henry Walnut, whoever he may be, but my friend did, and despite my protestations, refused to hear anything to the contrary.

Such mishearings and misinterpretations of lines in a poem or lyrics in a song were coined mondegreens by American writer Sylvia Wright in 1954. As a young girl, she had misheard a line from a 17th-century ballad, hearing “They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray, And Lady Mondegreen” instead of the actual last line “And laid him on the green.” Likewise, other misinterpretations have their own coinages.
It always makes me laugh to hear my mum refer to her recent forgetfulness as ‘Oultimers disease’, the Irish variant of “Oldtimers disease” and of course the misheard version of the very real illness, Alzheimer’s disease. What I didn’t know until recently was that this was called an eggcorn, the substitution of a word or phrase for another that sounds similar but where the substitution has some logic behind it. The term “eggcorn” itself came from one woman’s misunderstanding of “acorn” (granted, it does look a bit eggy) and the term has come to be used for all such substitutions, such as “ex-patriot” (instead of “expatriate”) and “shoe-in” (as opposed to the correct “shoo-in”).
Conversely, malapropisms are substitutions that come from a mishearing but where the resultant phrase does not make any sense – although it will generally make people laugh. Think Del Boy of Only Fools and Horses declaring it was “good to be back on the old terracotta” and not “terra firma” and you get an idea of the comedy potential.
Meanwhile, Folk etymology refers to popularly held assumptions and beliefs about the origin of a word or phrase, assumptions that are based on common sense but which often prove to be false and enter into the lexicon in any case. Examples include the use of “chaise lounge” (a chair for your living room) which comes from the original “chaise longue” meaning “long chair”, and “butt-naked”, which again makes sense but which actually comes from “buck-naked” as in the buck of the deer and later Indian brave varieties.
Lastly, and my own personal favourite, spoonerisms are the mixing up of the consonants and/ or vowels in words and named after an English reverend who suffered from this comic affliction. Perhaps the most famous example is the ingenious “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy”. Whether accidental tips of the slongue – sorry, slips of the tongue – or intentional plays on words, they are ripe comedy fodder.
Who’d have thought that making mistakes could have such comedy potential? A bit like seeing somebody fall over, only doing so with words.