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How Translation Is Like A Puzzle

Erica Huttner

Just over a year ago, I wrote a post about why I believe translation is a fascinating career. In it, I primarily focused on how my translation career has given me the opportunity to constantly learn about new topics that I never would have learned about otherwise, as well as add diverse terminology to my personal lexicon, related to everything from Mediterranean fish species to industrial machinery.

Last week, I suddenly realized another reason I love translating: sometimes, it's like doing a puzzle! I've always been a puzzle fanatic, from jigsaw puzzles to crossword puzzles. There's something so satisfying about taking different pieces and fitting them together to create a new whole.

In many situations, translations are straightforward, and choosing the right words to convey the source text in the target language is quite simple. However, in some cases, such as a large translation I worked on last week, they can be a bit of a puzzle.

There are many reasons why the translation I was working on last week felt like a puzzle. First of all, the document I was translating was for a translation agency instead of the actual client. While you can often rely on getting additional context from a direct client, it's much more difficult when working through an agency. In this particular case, there was no way for me or the agency to reach out to the document's writer for more information, so I had to do a bit of detective work during the translation process.

As I've mentioned in the past, sometimes the little things can be the most difficult in translation, including grammatical aspects like gender. In this case, I was dealing with a report that referred to people either by their last names or by simply using third-person singular verb conjugations. This posed an issue because Spanish doesn't require the use of the words él and ella ("he" and "she") before conjugated verbs.

While I could have used the neutral singular "they" instead, it would have made the report much harder to read. In some cases, I found a stray él or ella with a name that allowed me to determine whether the person was female or male, so I could use phrases like "she said" and "he noticed" instead of using the singular "they". In other circumstances, the person's full name would be mentioned, but then I'd have to figure out what gender corresponded to their name.

Luckily, Spanish naming customs are helpful in that respect. Not only do Spanish speakers tend to choose from a much narrower list of names than English speakers, but they are also fairly gender-specific. From a translator's standpoint, that's incredibly helpful, as you can feel fairly confident it's accurate to refer to someone named María as "she", and José as "he". However, there were still a few stray names that I had to research online in order to determine the correct gender pronoun to use.

Another thing that made this translation like a puzzle was the fact that since I couldn't contact the original writer, I had to try to put myself in their place and see things from their perspective. In a sense, I was acting like a detective, trying to decipher their meaning. Certain sections of the report were clearly written for an audience with far more context than me, so I had to simply do my best by filling in a tentative translation while guessing their meaning. Luckily, as I worked my way through the document, additional details filled in the contextual gaps, so I was able to go back and make those tentative translations more accurate.

In the end, after a week's worth of detective work searching for the right words and the right meanings, I was able to fit all the pieces together. While the topic wasn't exactly fascinating, I still found it fun because it was a challenge, just like a good jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes when you do a translation, you might have to accept that a few pieces will be missing from the final product, but hopefully you'll manage to get enough of them together to convey the full picture.