The term research process, it’s about the process; not the type of dictionary

What do you do when you come across a term you don’t know the translation for in a document you’re translating?

In my case, while I seem to do different things on different occasions, I think I actually follow the same process every time, which looks something like this:

  • Starting point: I come across a (technical*) word I don’t know the translation for. (*Process might be different for general language.)
  1. Understand term in the text. Meaning from context, a dictionary or my head (I know what the term means but not yet its translation).
  2. Look for translations. Look for possible solutions, usually in bilingual resources.
  3. Look for definitions, usually in monolingual sources.
  4. Compare and contrast definitions. Look for holes in possible solutions found or thought of.
  5. Decide: 1) choose from solutions found 2), create a new one/adapt one found, or 3) do further research (go back to one of the previous steps).

Instantaneously or otherwise, every step always gets taken

For instance, step one always happens but may happen very quickly. Particularly if I have a passive knowledge of the term from hearing it a lot but have never had to translate it.

On other occasions, step one might require translating or reading the whole document before I understand what the term means. Although I may just look it up, either in a dictionary, Wikipedia or Google.

Most of the time, however, not much looking up happens at this stage because the context and prior knowledge usually give me enough clues to know what the term means in the source language.

It’s not about what dictionary you use

When thinking about term research, it’s easy to get caught up on what type of resource you use and whether you prefer bilingual or monolingual dictionaries. I’ve come to think that’s a mistake. It’s the process that matters and focusing on the types of resources misleads.

As we saw with the first step, what matters is understanding the term in the context, for which I might sometimes turn to a dictionary but won’t always.

Finding solutions to test

Of course, I have to have solutions to be able to test them, which is what step two’s about. I could go to a bilingual resource but may not need to if I’ve already thought of a couple of possibilities.

Test possible translations

After having found some possible solutions, I find definitions to test the translations against the meaning of the source term, which will probably involve turning to monolingual dictionaries but may not if there’s enough information in the source text.

Maybe I’ve looked at the source term in Wikipedia and then flipped over to the English version and checked this way that the definitions for both terms match for the context. So, while I might not have turned to any dictionaries as such, I still more or less went through the whole process as stated above.

On other occasions, the whole process can be more laborious, depending on what type of term we’re talking about.

Legal terms seem to give me the most work in step three and four because sometimes it’s not easy to compare or even nail down the definitions for similar but not quite the same terms.

Sometimes, stage one causes the biggest headaches. This often occurs with jargon or terms used internally in an organisation, or by “insiders” in an industry, as shorthand, and includes everything from abbreviations to slang.

So, while I’m not sure I follow this process all the time, I think it’s a much closer approximation to what actually happens than just thinking about it in terms of what resources I use, which is how I used to look at it.

Written by Rob Lunn

Rob Lunn is a freelance translator based in Spain. He translates from Spanish and Catalan into English and specialises in legal translation.

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