Posted by: patenttranslator | October 9, 2014

The Proper Way for Doing Everything, Including Translating


When we were children, we were told that there was a proper way to do everything and anything. We then tried to teach our own children the skills that they would need to survive and proper ways for doing everything, from tying their shoe laces and riding their bike to driving a car …. until they learned what they needed to know …. and started telling us what terrible drivers we are.

Is there a proper way to translate? According to Horace, there should be a proper way for everything (“Est modus in rebus, sunt certi denique fines” – which loosely translated means “There is a right way for everything, but nothing should be overdone”).

So if there is a proper way for everything, is there a proper way to translate?

The proper ways of various methods for certification of translation (ISO and EN methods that were designed for manufacturing of industrial products) are in my opinion nothing but a mendacious advertising gimmick as I have written in several posts already. There is a proper way to type, for example, this is something that can be learned in a typing course, and if you respect the rules of our physical world and the processes occurring in your mind and associate in your head letters with their positions on the keyboard, you will eventually touch type relatively quickly.

But it so happens that one of the best translators I met simply discarded the notion that touch typing is something worth knowing and instead typed very quickly with only two fingers. I am a pretty fast touch typist after decades of typing just about every day, but the truth is, he was just as fast.

And of course, there are people who use voice input and then only edit the text. Naturally, they claim that this is the best input method, much better than typing. Just because most people do something certain way does not mean that this is the best way for everybody.

To an uninitiated outsider it might seem that translating is mostly about typing, or really simply retyping something in another language. But nothing could be further from the truth. Translating has basically nothing to do with typing, or speaking into a microphone, and everything to do with thought processes occurring in our heads.

I can’t say what would be the best method to translate for everyone and anyone, but I can say what is the best way to translate for me and perhaps also for people like me.

The first rule for translating properly is that you have to be madly in love with the languages that you translate.

This is not a difficult test to pass and I suspect that most translators are just as obsessed with languages as I am, which is probably a healthier obsession than most. I have been obsessed with quite a few languages, starting with Russian when I was nine and ending with Japanese which I started learning in my early twenties. I said ending with Japanese because at this point I understand that this is not a language that can be really learned by a foreigner. It is so different from every other language that you basically have to be born into it to become truly fluent. But a little detail like this is not going to stop me from continuing my futile obsession.

Although I am madly in love with all the languages that I am translating, there are different degrees of love depending on the language, and of course, it is sometime a love-hate relationship because it is indeed true that there is a thin line between love and hate.

French to me is a language that got away from me, like a girl that you were supposed to marry when you were a teenager, except that for some reason, it was not supposed to be. But unlike love relationships with people in your life, your relationship with languages does not need to be exclusive and monogamous. After French was lost to me for about 30 years because everybody wanted me to translate mostly either Japanese or German, I am happy to say that French, the girlfriend that got away from me when I was still very young, is back in my life again, and she is as beautiful and radiant as ever. In fact, I have a French translation that I must finish before noon today after I publish this post.

I could go on describing all of the seven meaningful languages in my life, but it would be a very long post, and it could get really graphic and personal, so I think I’d better stop here with that particular aspect of the proper method for translating.

The second rule for translating properly is that you have to respect yourself.

The way you translate should correspond to the way you are: including that what you are translating should be something that you are interested in, at least to some extent. This should not be a very difficult test to pass either. The world is full of interesting things, and although I translate mostly patents and technical subjects, I can translate non-technical subjects as well, with the exception of accounting and financial reports which I simply detest.

Because the proper way to translate should be in harmony with the way you are, you must also respect the way your body and mind work when you are translating, including your circadian rhythm, or the biological clock that regulates your biological and mental processes.

My most productive time for translating, or writing, is just after I wake up, while I am drinking my first and second cup of coffee. The renewal of energy that comes after a good night’s sleep somehow makes me understand all those traps in a difficult text in a foreign language that I just could not understand the day before.

That is why I usually plan my day so that about 50 percent of heavy duty translating that I need to do for the day is finished before noon, and afternoons are left mostly for minor or simple and repetitive translating tasks and for proofreading.

I still have to make sure that I pay good attention to everything when I proofread, which is why I need frequent breaks that tend to become longer and longer as the afternoon is progressing, and usually also a nap, sometime two.

I read somewhere that a nap should not last more than an hour because you would then not be able to sleep at night. Not a problem for me. Jack Reacher, a fictional character from Lee Child’s novels always knows the exact time of the day to the minute in his head without needing a watch. I have an even better skill than Jack Reacher – whenever I take a nap when I feel tired during the day, I know that I will wake up exactly in 45 minutes.

My third rule for proper translating has to do with the second part of the famous quote from Horace – “… sunt certi denique fines“, which could be also translated literally as “and finally, there are certain boundaries”.

I know that if I try to force myself when the quota of creative energy available to me on a daily basis has been exhausted for the day, I will make too many errors in my translation. Even if I try to fit in a few more productive hours into my day, these are the hours that I will lose next day because I will probably not be able to work as many hours tomorrow if I try to cheat today.

So when it is time to call it a day, it is time to call it a day. This is very much contrary to what the world expects from translators who are always dealing with rush jobs because translators are thought of mostly as people who are simply retyping something in a different language, and as everybody knows, creativity is not needed for a simple task like typing.

But fortunately, I found a way to deal with this problem. I simply charge 40% more for rush work and when you dare to do that, it turns out that most of the rush jobs can in fact wait another day, or even a few days, or even two weeks.


  1. Just came across this post by chance and it’s great! I especially like the part about being in love with one’s languages. For me, too, French is the one I thought I was going to marry, but at the moment my main relationship is with German. I also agree strongly with the part about setting boundaries. I’m about to make the jump from in-house to freelance translator, and I suspect that boundary-setting will be one of the harder things I have to learn.


  2. “For me, too, French is the one I thought I was going to marry, but at the moment my main relationship is with German.”

    As long as you are not married to an abusive language who does not appreciate you …..

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I absolutely loved the comparison of French with a (lost) lover. Beautiful.

    Are you a fan of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher? I gave up after the first 5 books or so, it started to become repetitive, but I did like the first 2 or 3 a lot. Have you seen the film?

    Regarding ‘the proper way’ to do anything (including translation), I guess it’s a very personal thing. Some are more productive in the morning (like my partner), I tend to be more focused and creative in the evening.


  4. @Alina
    I have seen the film, but I thought the books were much better, which is usually the case.


    • I haven’t seen it yet, I was actually looking for an opinion from someone who has also read the books. I can’t picture Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher though.


  5. “I can’t picture Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher though”.

    That was exactly my feeling before I saw the movie. But Tom Cruise did a very good job, I must say, although he is not one of my favorite actors.

    I think you will enjoy the movie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s what I heard. I do like Tom Cruise as an actor. Mind you, I had a little (read major) crush on him as a teenager, until I realised he was too old (he was in his early thirties) for me to like. But, you know what they say, karma is a …. There came a time when I could see my students’ horror when they found out my age (and I was still in my twenties!!!!). Sorry, totally off-topic.


      • It must be difficult to cast any actor as Jack Reacher. I can’t think of anybody right now … young Robert Redford could do it, I am sure, but he is so old now. Have you seen “All Is Lost”? He looks 100 years old in that movie.

        I can see Edward Norton as Jack Reacher. He is really an incredible actor. Have you seen “The Illusionist”? I watched it as if spellbound, especially since many of the scenes were shot where I grew up instead of in Vienna, namely in Cesky Krumlov and in Prague.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Just because most people do something certain way does not mean that this is the best way for everybody.


  7. Get in touch if you ever need some help with this former gf of yours !
    (English to French translator writing…).


  8. “The first rule for translating properly is that you have to be madly in love with the languages that you translate.” Steve, I love you for saying this. (But please, don’t take that the wrong way.)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. That’s a very nice article that i am going to bookmark for sure thank you!


  10. […] When we were children, we were told that there was a proper way to do everything and anything. We then tried to teach our own children the skills that they would need to survive and proper w…  […]


  11. […] 10/10/2014 The Proper Way for Doing Everything, Including Translation by Steve Vitek (Diary of a Mad Patent Translator) […]


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