Timst’s Happy Place

Aside: How I write

by timst on December 23, 2013

Some people have asked me about my writing process. I am by no mean a professional blog writer, or a professional writer, or really any kind of writer at all. I just type things and hope they don’t sound weird. But when I do that, however, I usually use some external resources. I’m going to write about the ones that I use for writing in a language, and the ones I use for translating between tongues, but obviously there is some overlapping.

Writing

Google. This might sounds obvious, but Google is my number one reference for… for everything. It’s like the Swiss knife of writing. For one, since I’m not a native speaker, Google allows me to get an instant poll on which expression is the most “natural” — that is, which one is most likely to be used by locals. Or which one is grammatically correct. I simply write both sentences between quotes and run them on Google, then the one with the more hits is likely to be the “correct” one. When the number of hits are similar, it helps to look at which kind of websites are returned for each. “appropiate” might have almost 2 millions hits, but a quick glance at the results quickly reveal that what you’re looking for is really “appropriate”. Another useful feature of Google is its variety of calculating tools, to convert units or currencies for instance (“100 SEK IN EUR”, “15 km=mi”…).

Wiktionary. There is obviously a variety of dictionaries available online, but usually I stick with Wiktionary for the same reasons I stick with Wikipedia: it’s trustworthy (even more so than Wikipedia, since there is only so much lies you can write on a single word definition before people call your bullshit), and its open-sourceness means that it’s usually way more complete than commercial dictionaries. Also, it’s international, so it’s easy to find the equivalent of a word in other languages, a feature that will become very useful in the next section. Both are part of the Wikimedia project, which also contains Wikiquote, a useful (if at times incomplete) repository of quotes.

Thesaurus.com. Or any thesaurus really (I usually google “thesaurus” [word]” or “synonym [word]” and click whatever comes first). Very useful to avoid repetitions and to get a word with the proper “feeling” for the sentence.

English.stackexchange.com (along with french.stackexchange.com, spanish.stackexchange.com, etc.. Do note that those sites are always in English, but they are about different languages). StackExchange is a network of high-quality Q&A sites that originated in computer programming and then expanded to cover a variety of other topics, in this case the usage of English or other languages. Unlike other websites like, say, Yahoo! Answers which tends to be… less focused, SE uses an elaborate system of points that favors precise, accurate answers to well-defined questions, rather than aimless chatter and haphazard “maybe it’s that?”-type answers. As a result, this can be the ultimate buster for a tough usage or grammar question, but you better check that your question is well-written, on-topic and not already answered if you don’t want it to be butchered by the site users.

Translating

You might not have noticed it since the website automatically detects your browser language, but this blog is actually written in two languages, the other being French. I usually start by writing an article in either language, depending on my mood (in this particular case, I started with English for instance), then roughly translate it, usually adding ideas if something comes to my mind while rewriting and adapting the content to the local culture and intended audience (my french readers are usually family or friends from high school; my English readers are likely to be swedes or other people I met during my stay here). It’s usually a straightforward job, but sometimes I can be unsure about the meaning and overtones of a word or idiom, or translate from a language I’m less proficient in.

A big challenge is to find what the “real” translation of a word is; it’s important to distinguish between a translation of a word that is valid but incorrect in this context, a translation which technically works but sounds strange to a native’s ears, and a true translation. For instance, let’s say you want to advertise a 5-room apartment in French. Google Translate offers three words for “room”: “Chambre”, Salle” and “Pièce”. All three are technical translation of “room”, except the first one, “chambre”, usually refers to bedroom only. Your flat most likely doesn’t have five bedrooms and nothing else. The second translation is even more tricky: “salle” can refer to any kind of room, and thus sounds like a good fit… except it’s simply not the one that would be used in this context, and “Un appartement de 5 salles”, while understandable, would sounds off. Only the third one —pièce— is the true translation of your meaning. Obviously, it would be very hard to know that without being a native speaker, so it’s probably impossible to have a truly natural writing in your second language unless you were raised in it or something. Nevertheless, you can try to approximate it with the help of those websites:

Google Translate. Obviously. But GT (as nobody calls it) is usually more useful with simple words that have an unambiguous translation. If you’re trying to translate something like “bed” or “house”, you can probably trust whatever comes out on the other side. For more complicated words, it can helps to average out the answer with the different results offered and to then google the result to see if it fits (googling a sentence and seeing if many hits return is a great way to test the “authenticity” of a sentence). If you’re translating a block of text from a language you don’t speak and the result is unclear, it can sometimes be useful to cross-check with other automated translators like Bing Translator. But again, this will only help for simple cases; for more ambiguous situations, you’re going to have to try…

Wikipedia. No, really. See, every Wikipedia article is linked with its international equivalents. By checking the articles in the other language, you usual get the true name of whatever concept or item it is you wish to translate. It’s particularly useful when trying to translate words that have several separate meanings in your language. By writing the word without context on Google Translate, you run the risk of the translation of another meaning being returned. By looking up linked article, you’re sure to at least talk about the same thing.

Linguee. This one only works for 5 languages (english-french, english-spanish, english-german and english-portuguese), which is unfortunate, because it’s the bee’s knees. Basically, it’s a search engine that looks through existing translations of texts. It’s very useful to find the equivalent of an expression or phrasing. For instance, you want to find the translation of the expression “la balle est dans son camp”. A literal translation would be “the ball is in his/her camp”, which sounds familiar but not quite right. Typing the sentence in Linguee reveals that the correct translation is actually “the ball is in his/her court“. Be careful, however, when using it to translate to french: many sources are from canadian website, which sometimes uses words or sentence structure that will sound unnatural to french ears. Similar caveat might applies to spanish and portuguese, depending on where the texts originate.

Wordreference. I don’t participate in this community myself, but their threads are usually the top google results when looking for the translation of some sort of word or idiom. It’s frequented by users of different nationalities that helps each other with language, so it’s also a great way to find what locals would actually use, despite what the dictionary and phrasebook says.

 

And that’s pretty much it. Again, all those won’t replace having a great grammarian or a native speaker of the language you’re translating to at hand, but it’s a start. It helps to remember that most languages are flexible anyway, especially English and French who have a lot of regional variations. As long as it’s understandable, it is my opinion that language rules shouldn’t limit you to the point where it impairs your ability to express yourself (and also to make sick jokes).