Proofreading prompts — Part I: A vocabulary checklist

January 19, 2024 by Alison Tunley

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One of the benefits of doing regular review work as a translator is that it offers useful reminders of things to watch out for in your own translation tasks. It is always easier to spot errors or stylistic glitches in someone else’s work, so this is a great opportunity to draw up a generic checklist of potential pitfalls to avoid. Most of these are obvious but having them listed explicitly in a proofreading checklist makes them easier to spot when reading through text that you have worked on yourself. In Part I the focus is on vocabulary choices; Part II will delve into grammatical and stylistic flaws to look out for.

Ditch the dictionary

Most words offer a variety of translation options. The crucial question to ask is does the chosen word make sense in this context? It’s surprising how often a translation choice is made that is completely illogical, and often the fault can be traced back to an over-reliance on dictionary definitions. A text involving promotional materials for a conference, for example, translated the German Einspieler as interludes, which is likely to baffle the reader when what was meant are film clips or short videos. Similarly, the description of a conference session in German as überzogen requires the translator to go beyond standard dictionary options such as overdone, excessive and overblown because what was meant in this particular context was a session that overruns, i.e. fails to stick to the schedule.

Don’t be fooled by false friends

These overlap with the need to ditch the dictionary but are so common they deserve a checklist item of their own. Overly literal vocabulary choices are sometimes difficult to spot in your own text when you are familiar with the source language, but these are usually glaringly obvious to a native speaker reading the text in isolation. This blog has touched previously on my personal bugbear about the translation of German Variant with English variant, a seemingly endless source of clunky translation examples. Consider the phrase “Dazu bieten wir viele Varianten an”. The meaning might be clear if translated as “We offer many variants for this”, but a much more elegant phrasing would be something like, “We offer lots of options with this in mind”.

Once again, context is everything when it comes to vocabulary choices. While the German Podium might often be translated entirely appropriately as English podium, in the context of a conference panel discussion (Podiumsdiskussion) the association with an Olympic medal ceremony is distracting.

One word or two

Let’s be honest, we all struggle at times with these, and for good reason. There is a natural evolution from two separate words to one (often via a hyphenated option). Check out the Google ngram viewer for hair dryer and hairdryer (the latter has been rising steadily over the last couple of decades, recently overtaking the two-word option). The best approach for the one-word versus two-word dilemma is often an internet search or ngram to see which option is prevailing. A recent review task had goose bumps as separate words, but a quick internet search suggests almost ten times as many hits for the single word variant goosebumps.


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