Author Archives: Oliver Lawrence

Translating Italian into music

Translations are made of visual signs on the page or screen. But they are also made of patterns of sound, with vowels clipped or sonorous and consonants plosive or sibilant, sewn into a linear tapestry of timbres and stresses that we can feel through our sense of rhythm. And we can use to great effect. If we keep our ears open, that is.

The ebb and flow of a text, its evocative interlacing of sounds and echoes, can add much to the reading experience. It can make a text more enjoyable and more engaging. And the more engaged the reader, the closer their attention, and the more effectively the message can be conveyed and made memorable, so it hits home and lives on in the mind afterwards. Which is exactly what translation buyers want.

There are several dimensions to this musicality of language, this euphony, that can be harnessed to enhance the texts we create.

Rhythm is a fundamental ingredient in the mix. A text with an interminable waddle of bloated sentences that plod on, one after another after another, is liable to lead to a heaviness of the eyelids. And too many short sentences are problematic too. There is not enough variety. The text becomes choppy and boring. It’s a rather infantile way of writing. It grates on the ear – like this.

There are some marvellous examples of rhythmical writing out there, from Hemingway to the HSBC UK advert that begins “Where would we be without you? The butchers, the bakers, the digital future-makers. This proud nation of shopkeepers. From BLTs to MOTs, you’re the companies that keep us all going…”. You can feel the rhythm. It’s not a childish sing-song; it’s not like the sledgehammer of rap; it carries you along and gets you into the spirit.

One technique here is the rule of three. Veni, vidi, vici. The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. Soft, strong and very long. Triplets in writing can have a powerful rhythmic effect, especially when the longest element comes last – “Life, the pursuit of Happiness, and Liberty” wouldn’t trip off the tongue quite as memorably as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (from the US Declaration of Independence).

But rhythm isn’t just about the flow within a paragraph; it also works within each sentence. “But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” wrote The Bard, in perfect iambic pentameter. By which I mean a line comprising five iambs, an iamb being a rhythmical unit made up of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. Like “wahey” or “today” or “curtail”. But not “curtain”, which contains a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one: that’s a trochee. And then there are dactyls (in a DUM-di-di pattern, as in “wonderful”), anapaests (di-di-DUM, “on the sea”) and the double whammy of a spondee (DUM-DUM, “hard cheese”).

When you become aware of individual syllable stresses and how they fit together, you’re much better placed to write more rhythmical, appealing sentences. Which sounds better: “Design, technology and racy performance, resulting in the highest standard of quality cruising on the seas” or “Design, technology and racy performance for a fabulous cruising experience”? That “resulting in the” makes you stutter when you read it out loud – or even in your head.

Likewise, the lumpen “Every detail on Ocean Mist is a precise and direct expression of the personality of her owner and is all exclusively made” works rather better when distilled down to the crisper “On Ocean Mist, every exclusive detail is a pure expression of her owner’s personality”. Another technique is to end a sentence on a stress for added resonance: “I am Chief Inspector Barnaby, and this is Sergeant Troy.” – an emphatic monosyllable to end the announcement and reinforce the import.

From patterns of stress to patterns of sound: the echoes of assonance and alliteration offer canny writers another tool to make their texts sing. If used judiciously, of course. For if we’re not careful, the effect can be overdone, from “The dubbyng of my dingnité may noyot be done downe” in a mediaeval mystery play to the tabloid headline “Flapjack whack rap claptrap” (?) and on to the inexplicable F-fest of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Cockermouth and Workington: “No folk fled the flood, / no flags furled or spirits failed – / one brave soul felled.” (etc., ad nauseam). Those examples are deliberately full-on, but overblown assonance can also creep up on you unawares, as in “The yAcht Offers a cOncept Of On-board Opulence…”, with its hammer sequence of “o” sounds that would be more at home in a rap song.

Instead, we can use a subtle sprinkling of prosody to create a pleasant effect. The copy for this Italian perfume maker is a-waft with auditory notes: “Aquaflor invites you to experience a collection of fragrances lovingly crafted by master perfumer Sileno Cheloni from rare and precious ingredients sourced from every corner of the world.” For besides the lattice of fragrant f’s (Aquaflor, fragrances, crafted, perfumer) and crisp c’s (Aquaflor, collection, crafted, corner), the perfumer’s very name, “Sileno Cheloni” is itself a symphony of syllables that adds a certain je ne sais quoi of its own. These nuanced verbal devices enhance the image of a sophisticated product.

Never mind The Sun, alliteration is also at home in the infinitely more refined hands of The Economist’s headline writers: “Chengdu then don’t” proclaims a piece about the cancellation of an event in China; “Going against the grain” winks a column about disruptive technology in the whisky industry. The possibilities are endless.

And it’s not just about rhythm and flow or patterns of assonance. Individual sounds can make their own unsung contribution to the value of a piece of writing. Call it phonaesthetics, call it euphony, certain words trip off the tongue in delightful style: compare “mellifluous”, “sublime” and “gossamer” with “slug-like”, “jugjub” and “honking”, for instance. Whether or not you go as far as The Upanishads (“The mute consonants represent fire; sibilants, air; vowels, the sun.”), there’s clearly something going on here.

The “bouba-kiki” experiment gives us a clue: people are shown two shapes – one spiky and angular, one rounded and soft – and told that one is called “bouba” and the other “kiki”. They have to say which. People nearly always pair “kiki” with spiky and “bouba” with curvy. And this works across different countries, languages and cultures, suggesting that there may be something universal at work.

Either way, owl-eared writers have yet another tool to hone their work. We can use ‘h’ sounds to help create a mood of high-flown harmony, hope, holiness or heavenly hosts. Lazy l’s evoke languid, leisurely, lavish, idyllic luxury. And the reedy i’s and t’s in “tinpot leader” reinforce the impression of a meagre, insubstantial figure. Sounds come into their own in the language of product or company names. “Sprite” suggests a sense of crisp freshness. Animal health brand “Zoetis” went through various iterations, including “Zoetic”, which they softened for a slightly warmer feel by changing the last letter. And if you’re talking about some fast, edgy new product for men, then maybe velvety language like “blend” and “melodious” isn’t really what you want.

To develop this level of refinement in your writing, you have to cultivate an awareness and then learn to apply it. Open your ears when you read, to absorb what other writers have done – from greats like Gertrude Stein and Shakespeare to the best contemporary journalists, copywriters and poets. It’s about giving yourself the time and headspace to experience the soundscape that a well-written text can offer. And then making a conscious, sustained effort to emulate that and build on it yourself. Until you make what you have learned your own, by reflecting and practising, you’ve not made the most of your investment in yourself.

There are a couple of good exercises to try. Take a paragraph of text you like the sound of and re-write it. Change the words, change the subject, make it about whatever you want – but keep the rhythm. Keep the same pattern of sentence lengths. Heck, if you’re feeling adventurous, keep the same pattern of syllables and stresses in each sentence, too. It’ll show you something about language.

The other exercise, which is just as challenging but maybe even more fun, is to take a song you like and write different lyrics to it. But they have to fit the rhythm. None of that “It’s no sac-er-i-fice” (tsk tsk, Elton). Banging tune but excruciating, outdated lyrics? (“Living, loving, she’s just a woman” – groan – I’m looking at you, Led Zep.) Why not bring them up to date or give them an ironic twist? It’s all in a good cause. Or if that doesn’t float your boat, try the discipline of haiku writing. For as John Cooper Clarke reminds us, “To convey one’s mood / In seventeen syllables / Is very diffic.

But with a little effort, writers and translators can help to make the world a little more musical. Echoing with more beautiful, more memorable, more effective texts. And what better note to end on than that.

Editing translations – a response to an ACES webinar

Dear ACES and Sarah Grey

Many thanks for your webcast on editing translations. It contains much of value. (I also enjoyed Sarah’s excellent online course on inclusive language, not least the lavish resources list; I now feel I have a very good grounding in that subject.)

I am an editor and a translator (from Italian to English) and a Fellow of the UK Chartered Institute of Linguists, and there are a few points I would like to add, if I may, to qualify and complement the “Editing Translations” webinar content.

The phrase “literal accuracy” was used. We must be careful not to confuse a literal translation with an accurate one. Often, the literal does not convey the meaning faithfully at all.

The impression was given that it is common for translators to get word order wrong or be far too literal or use too many articles, not enough Saxon genitives, etc. Errors like this are absolutely inexcusable and are not common at all among qualified, experienced, conscientious professional translators. A number of translation agencies, sadly, especially some of the largest/cheapest, have not always been sufficiently rigorous about the quality of the translators they hire. There is also a perception in wider society that anyone who knows two languages can translate between them, but that would be like claiming that anyone with two hands could perform brain surgery. No translator worth their salt should use the basic building blocks of language incorrectly.

All translators should also edit and proofread their own work to make it crisp, natural and precise. Even the best translator can benefit from a critical edit, it’s true, but if your translator is effectively sending you drafts, then find another translator.

The webinar suggests that it might be a problem if the translator lives outside their native-language community. This need not be the case at all. Some of the best translators in the world live in their source-language country. Translators need to keep in close touch with both their source and their target languages (as well as their markets), and there are ways of doing so regardless of which nation you live in.

If a translation requires such a basic level of editing as to ensure that there are no omissions, that names and numbers have come through correctly, etc., then it is preferable to get another translator-editor to edit it (first). If you don’t know the source language to professional standard, then you are very limited in the value you can add with your editing. How can you spot mistranslations, apart from one or two glaring kinds like missing names? Many years ago, I once attempted to edit a translation from Romanian, a language I don’t speak, and it’s not an experience I would repeat. There are so many things you cannot be sure of (precisely because you don’t know the source language) that either you have to wave most of them through and hope for the best or you have to raise numerous queries with the writer/translator; neither approach is satisfactory. When editing a text translated from Italian or written by an Italian, on the other hand, I can often work out what unclear or unnatural passages are trying to say, because I can see how the thought process began in Italian. This can be confirmed explicitly with the client/author where necessary.

The webinar slides contain an unfortunate typo in the slide about interpreting, which as Sarah correctly emphasises in her audio commentary, relates not to written but to spoken language.

A cautionary note: treat the WordReference and ProZ resources with a pinch of salt. There is some value in it to start you off, but it is not very nuanced. Although some of the contributors there are very competent, the overall quality is rather uneven; some of it is actually rubbish.

Thank you for recommending that editors consult translators. But please use proper professionals – e.g. qualified members of the ATA, ITI, CIOL and other national translator institutes and associations in various countries – and not cheap dilettantes (of whom, sadly, there are many).

There is no need to edit culture-specific references out of a source text in order to prepare it for translation. A proper professional translator will understand them (doing additional research, if necessary) and will know how to include appropriate culture-specific references, idioms, wordplay, etc., that convey the intended message or image in the translation. When a translator meets an unfamiliar metaphor in the source text, they work out what it means and then find a metaphor or idiom or at least a natural expression in the target language that expresses the same thing – or, as Sarah says, they might give a direct translation to maintain the flavour and add a gloss. There are various approaches. You don’t just translate it literally and leave it at that.

A good translator will have the judgement and sensitivity to know when to smooth out glitches in the source text and avoid perpetuating the same problems in the translation: if the purpose of a text is clearly to impart life-saving information, for example, then any ambiguities in the original must absolutely be resolved in the translation. (And fed back to the author/client so they can fix the source text, too.) If your translator can’t do these things, find a better translator.

Many thanks again to Sarah and ACES for another useful webinar.

All the best


The pen is mightier than the coronavirus

What strange days we find ourselves living in. What unprecedented days. Days of concern and apprehension, of great threats and radical countermeasures. How are you managing? Staying healthy, I trust? Getting used to life indoors? It’s not so new for those of us who work from home, but plenty of folk are feeling the strain, as we all #staythefhome amid the general siege mentality.

But we can take courage from the knowledge that we have several weapons to wield against our common foe. Soap and water, for one, will stop it in its tracks. Social distancing helps us protect the vulnerable and do our bit to support our heroic doctors and nurses.

And another thing we have is words. Communicating. Keeping in touch, keeping informed, keeping our collective spirits up. Filling the streets with song, like the proud people of Siena in this spinetingling impromptu of the classic Canto della Verbena. Or having a Skype chat with grandma, joining a Zoom meeting with a bunch of colleagues, seizing the chance to read that book, do that online course or write that story you’d never got around to. Now’s a good time.

In business, too, now’s the time to reach out (there, I said it) to our customers and suppliers, our colleagues and staff, who might all be feeling a bit vulnerable and concerned about how things are going to pan out. There have been speeches of real leadership, from Italian President Giuseppe Conte, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson (RIP) and many more. My clients have been sending messages to encourage their employees, to reassure their customers and to paint a vision of a more hopeful future.

Of course, it would be tone deaf to promote a tourist destination or major event as if nothing were amiss. But we can help people to daydream, to imagine their world when things have returned to normal. And we can help businesses large and small to keep going through the tough times and emerge to make the most of the pent-up demand that will eventually be released, hopefully in not-too-distant days.

Well, I can’t help you with the soap and water, and I can only urge you to stay indoors. But when it comes to words, my colleagues and I in the translation, writing and editing professions are right here, standing shoulder to shoulder with you and your business. We’re hunkered down at home with our computers, ready to assist with your textual needs. With, I dare say, advantageous terms (even pro bono) on offer for special cases and humanitarian jobs.

In the meantime, stay safe and do join me in donating to help my adopted country, Italy, fight the good fight against Covid-19. Below are some appeals you can trust.

We’re all in this together, so if we do our bit then we’ll get through it – andrà tutto bene!

Conference report – SATT19, Milan

If a speaker programme’s success can be measured by how many notes you make, then SATT19 was something of a triumph. Nine pages of scrawl was a hefty haul for your correspondent, who had been reduced to a crabbed, jaded figure by sitting through years of talks on valuing yourself, work-life balance, and pricing for dummies at general translation conferences.

But this one had a theme. No, a real theme.

The School of Advanced Technologies for Translators, on 13 and 14 September in Milan, had talks on how neural machine translation (NMT) works under the bonnet, how universities should be training translators in an industry where MT is now part of the norm, and how companies use MT, human translation and transcreation in their globalisation strategies. Not to mention workshops on post-editing (PEMT), SEO for translators, and various CAT tools. It was an interesting offering with contributions from academics and brands as well as language professionals.

It called itself a “School” – fair enough, it was held in a university, and many attendees were inexperienced translators or students. This put me in the unusual position of feeling duty-bound to correct certain misperceptions that the mainly academic/big-brand/big-LSP speakers were perhaps unwittingly creating in their as yet unsavvy audience. Like the idea that translation students should be taught that doing PEMT work is inevitable. Or that “human parity” actually means anything. Or that freelance translators are isolated (when we have local networks, Facebook groups and peer review partnerships …). Or that most translators work for large LSPs. When challenged, Airbnb’s localisation chief wryly acknowledged that using an agency denied him the chance to collaborate with the top translation talent, who tend to work directly with clients, but he had to because dealing with dozens of freelancers individually would not be feasible.

It was interesting to see how Unbabel, a Lisbon-based enterprise, is using AI (artificial intelligence), MT and crowdsourcing to provide fast, cheap translations of customer service emails, FAQ pages and other simple texts. Speed here is of the essence, and there would be little added value for them to seek out seasoned wordsmiths from the elite professional ranks. Their workflow seems highly complex: MT, an automated estimate of the MT output quality, two levels of post-editing by glorified amateurs who know both languages, various feedback loops, assessing the editors and trying to stop them gaming the system (e.g. by waiving through raw MT output to save time). Myriad checks and balances, then, to avoid using a professional.

Another session about a major brand’s approach to translation and transcreation for international markets proved insightful. Nike’s core team seem to have all bases covered, with a globalisation manager, an ad woman, and a translator with copywriting and storytelling training. They spoke about their internal-review processes for ensuring a consistent voice when working with multiple translation teams. And about how transcreation is the optimum way to create the desired communication effect in a foreign market when significant creativity is required, while keeping control of the message and avoiding reinventing the wheel in each market (which is what hiring local copywriters would have meant). They brought fresh examples of real localisation missteps, like “” (a chortle-worthy URL for the Italian branch of Powergen, fortunately altered in time) and “Time to take on Europe” (an abortive slogan for the women’s Champions League football tournament that was deemed unwise in these times of fractious anti-EU rhetoric).

A quick assortment of take-aways from the speakers:

  1. When deciding on your website content, start by considering which search terms your prospects might use to find the services you offer; then base your content around that.
  2. Before starting to translate a webpage, ask for a keyword list from your client’s target-language SEO specialist. (And if they want you to do that, price the service accordingly.)
  3. Some end clients are asking LSPs for technical solutions to better integrate the media translation process – e.g. for videos with dubbing/subtitles – into their marketing workflow. (And at least one LSP has already developed one.)
  4. MT has no place in localisation workflows for games or entertainment products, as the texts cannot be as engaging or compelling as they need to be.
  5. Universities should be training translators in content creation, writing skills, specialisation and transcreation. (Otherwise, they’ll spend years fixing MT bugs before finding themselves out of work when the machines become “good enough” to operate unattended.)
  6. The title character in a recent Disney film was renamed in the Italian version to avoid using the name of a famous pornstar.

To conclude, I enjoyed SATT19, not least its location near Milan’s buzzing Navigli district. Specialised, tightly themed events like this offer a good way for experienced translators to obtain stimulating, useful CPD. And excellent human translators should continue to thrive even as the machines march on.

Honing your craft with a literary maestro

‘If I began to think about these things, I was stopped, because so much came back to me, so many desires, so many old affronts’ – OK, let’s look at that first sentence. ‘If I began to think’? The original says ‘Se mi mettevo a pensare’: that’s not exactly began to think, is it? It’s more like ‘If I got to thinking’, or something along those lines. Look, the register is clearly informal in the original, so desires and affronts aren’t right. And I was stopped is supposed to be a translation of ‘non la finivo più’, which means the opposite, so God knows what the translator was doing there. Right! Who wants to tell me how can we improve this – Oliver? …”

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A matter of taste

I had a rude awakening the other week. (No, not the neighbour’s daughter’s Sunday morning trombone practice again, or at least I hope that’s what that noise is.)

After my first half-dozen marketing translations for a new client won a warm reception, the seventh came back with an irate-sounding note. “Wrong tone of voice”. My attempt at elegant and sophisticated – we’re talking luxury yachts, by the way – should have been more edgy and “aggressive”. One of the brands in the portfolio had a different tone, but that hadn’t come across to me when the job was placed. Armed with full ToV guidelines, I was then able to amend the text to their satisfaction and my relief. Continue reading

A tale of two slams

What’s in a name?

Would a translation “slam” by any other name sound as puerile and pseudo-confrontational? A tad harsh, perhaps, but I’m not a great fan of the “duel” rhetoric. Or maybe I was just hoping for a gentle ride, as I girded my verbal loins for my debut slam. My opposite number and I were trying to cultivate a collaborative approach to probe the text, to find the best renderings we could, to explore the various ways to skin a linguistic cat – rather than seeking a rumbustious, rambunctious tussle from which the vanquished slinks away, tail between shanks, their wounds to lick. “Superness”, not “supremacy”, was our aim. Continue reading

Nailing it

When is it done?

I’ve wondered out loud more than once in recent months about when we consider our work fit to ship. My broad conclusion, on reflection, is that a translation is done when it meets an acceptable standard. But what does that mean, exactly? The whole notion of “acceptable quality” is highly subjective. Continue reading

When is a translation done? (ITI Day 2018)

[This is the text of a 5-minute talk with a difference that I presented at the ITI One Day in … event on 16 June 2018 at Gray’s Inn in London. The presentation took the form of a “recital” of a pre-recorded text using my smartphone, but the experiment wasn’t a complete success, partly because the quality of the sound system at the venue, despite my sound check beforehand, wasn’t up to it, and apparently most of the audience struggled to hear any of it, annoyingly. The presentation was preceded by a warm and generous introduction by star organiser Anne de Freyman.]

It’s wonderful to be with you all this afternoon – isn’t it Oliver …?

… Indeed it is.

Hello folks.

Don’t be alarmed, but in a packed programme this afternoon, I shall be breaking from protocol in not one but two ways. I think you’ve grasped what the first one is going to be: in a tribute to the fabulous Lost Voice Guy – you know him? The comedian who was once in a disabled Steps tribute band called … Ramps – I shall be experimenting with some technology in what is something of a walk on the wild side for me. And second, I shan’t be speaking about what Anne thinks I’ll be speaking about, as I had a better idea a couple of days ago while waiting in Ciampino departure lounge.

So. I shall be asking the question:

When is it done?

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Writing – when it simply has to be right

What’s the most important thing you’ve ever written?

A couple of weeks ago, I had to craft what for me is probably the most momentous collection of words since I started, at my mother’s knee, to put crayon, pencil or pen to paper. Or loops and whorls to keyboard, now.

In recent months, I’ve been banging on about incisive, zestful writing and how to choose your words to better effect – as ITI Bulletin readers, BP17 conference-goers, and the lovely attendees of my own wee clear-writing course may recall.

It was time to put my freshly flexed penman’s muscles to the test. Continue reading