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How to improve your translation in three easy steps — and with almost no extra effort

How to improve your translation in three easy steps — and with almost no extra effort

Navigating high-quality translation with tight deadlines can be tough — but small changes can make the world of difference

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

At the start of January, I read an article that listed 100 ways to change your life without really having to do anything. It’s now been a month since I first read it, and some of them I’m still sticking to — from sending postcards all the time and using voice notes (which my friends are sick of, but I keep doing nonetheless) to getting better at repairing my clothes and trying to leave the house without my phone (the last one’s still a work in progress).

And you might, quite rightly, be wondering what on earth this has to do with you. Well, in April I will have been working at Unbabel for three years, and in that time I’ve seen lots of things. And among our colleagues, we have collective decades of experience of watching over our wonderful editors as they work hard and do their absolute best to produce excellent translations. However, as long-time observers, there are plenty of things that we see almost every day that are avoidable and incredibly simple to correct. So, a couple of weeks ago, I asked everyone who works with quality at Unbabel to give me some suggestions… and here we are.

  1. Respect the register. If bold changes are required, make them.

Everyone I asked said that this is something that’s incredibly common that is easy to change and would make a huge difference. As you’ll know, when you’re working on a translation, you’ll have been assigned a register by the client — in Unbabel’s case, it’s always formal or informal.

The problem is that when you’re working with a source text in English, you might end up with something like this:

Register: formal

Dear Mrs. Smith,

Wow, thanks for the pic! It’s great to hear back from you and I’m sure that new dress is really going to suit you!

If you’ve got any further questions, drop me a line.

Kind regards,


Here, the greeting is fine and will map easily onto another language. The email, though, is in an informal register and will need changing to correctly fit the client’s request for a formal register. More often than not, we see that these sentences aren’t changed. As an editor, your task is to produce a translation that retains the original meaning while also ensuring that the client’s requests are accurately met. In this case, checking the machine translation for grammatical errors and making sure it reads okay aren’t sufficient — you’ll need to change the text to make it more formal.

Remember that if the greeting or closing in the source doesn’t fit the register in the target, then it should be changed. This isn’t just something that it’s okay to do — it’s actually necessary to ensure a high-quality translation.

2. Syntax is part of translation, too. Don’t ignore it.

As many of you will know, I’ve spent a lot of time working with Portuguese/German to English (and vice versa). Speaking incredibly broadly, Portuguese sentences tend to be long and flowing, German sentences tend to be concise and full of lots of information, and English sentences tend to sit somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

Breaking up sentences into more bite-sized chunks for languages that are more used to shorter sentences is part of good translation, and with just a few seconds of work you can massively improve the fluency of your target text, and with it your evaluation scores.

It’s worth noting that while we normally observe this problem in one direction (sentences being too long for the target language), it can happen the other way too. If you feel it’s appropriate to connect up smaller sentences for the sake of fluency, you should do so without being afraid to use connectives if required.

3. You don’t need to keep English quirks in your target language if you don’t want to.

As Marina, our Senior Natural Language Analyst, tells me, there are many, many things that are used incredibly frequently that you can either leave out or change in your quest for a great translation. Some of these are listed below:

  • Passive & active voice. If your source uses more of either than you’d normally expect in your target language, simply flip it around. It takes just a few seconds and will make the text sound so, so much more natural.
  • Exclamation marks. English texts, especially customer service ones, can massively overuse exclamation marks, even by English standards. You are not obliged to keep these, and in many cases not only will it seem a lot more natural if you take them out, it is required to meet the requirements of customer register.
  • Continuous tenses. Don’t tie yourself in knots trying to express an English continuous tense in a language that isn’t suited to it. Put it in the corresponding simple form and move on with the task.
  • Hyphens and dashes. English speakers love using these, but they’re not always common in other languages. Don’t be afraid to convert them into more appropriate punctuation marks or change them up completely.

So, there we have it. I can’t help but notice a common theme running through all of these tips: we shouldn’t be afraid to make bold but necessary changes. It might be February already, but I’m going to keep that in mind as we move further into 2022.

How to improve your translation in three easy steps — and with almost no extra effort was originally published in Unbabel Community on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.