How to Translate Better (Part 1)

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Translators can translate better and produce more accurate translations by reading the original manuscript closely, referring to a source-language dictionary, and setting aside time before deadlines to double-check their work.  

How to Translate Better 

It’s difficult to say what a good translation looks like, but we can easily identify a poor translation. The latter typically contains mistranslations and omissions, as well as conspicuous typos or awkward phrases. 

I’m a Korean-English translator, and a publisher who edits and proofreads translations to ensure they are ready for publication.

And I’ve seen countless mistranslations, omissions and almost-too-liberal modifications of content structures on translators’ part – which I’m pretty sure will make authors – if they can read English – scowl at the translators. 

Therefore, I’ve decided to start this series of blog posts to share some good disciplines that will help translators translate better.

Just a note before I begin: I’ll be using Korean-English examples because that’s what I translate, but I hope most readers will still find the next three points useful.

1. Put on Your Glasses.

Misreading happens. Because we are careless creatures. And misreading leads to mistranslation.

Therefore, it’s of paramount importance that translators always, always put on their glasses when they read the original text closely to avoid misreading it.

Even a minor misreading, and hence mistranslation, can distort the meaning of a text. 

Here’s an example from Buckle Down: How I Invented South Korea’s First Automobile Engine written by Dr. Hyun-Soon Lee, which Harriett Press will be publishing in May 2020. 

“대학 내내 나는 매일 실험을 하면서 전공 책 속에 파묻혀 살았다.”

Wrong: Throughout college, I sat for tests every day and lived buried in my textbooks.

Correct: Throughout college, I conducted experiments every day and lived buried in my textbooks.

The bolded Korean word is 실험 (shil-heom – experiment) and not 시험 (shi-hom – test). If we aren’t cautious, we might have misread and mistranslated the sentence.

And readers may have found the mistranslated sentence kind of peculiar, because which college in South Korea makes students sit for tests every day?

The correct sentence in which the author, Dr. Lee, had conducted experiments every day makes sense because he was an ever-conscientious engineering student who had shut himself in the lab to conduct engineering experiments day in, day out when he was in college.

2. Refer to A Source-Language Dictionary. 

Another way to avoid mistranslation is to work closely with a source-language dictionary.

I’m not sure about other language pairs, but many Korean-English translators rely a great deal on Naver’s and Daum’s Korean-English dictionaries. (I do too, which is how I can tell that other translators do when I look at their translations of texts and dramas.) 

But these Korean-English dictionaries aren’t always correct or accurate. And if we rely entirely on their definitions, we’ll land ourselves in trouble.

This is why, besides Korean-English dictionaries, I also always refer to the Korean dictionary, and sometimes the Chinese dictionary, to be certain that I have the correct definition of the word I’m translating.  

Here’s a simple example.

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Naver’s English dictionary defines 치사하다 (chi-sa-ha-da) as cheap (see above). This isn’t correct, but you’ll likely have seen them in English subtitles of Korean dramas. 

On the other hand, Naver’s Korean dictionary offers a fuller and more accurate definition (see below).

It defines 치사하다 (chi-sa-ha-da) as behaviour or speech that is petty and disgraceful. Very different from cheap, isn’t it? 

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I can still recall how cross I was, when a close friend from South Korea jokingly called me cheap in a text message, which he had actually meant petty. (His English was as poor as my Korean nine years ago.)

I knew he didn’t mean what I thought the word meant, so I blamed it on Naver’s English dictionary and chided him. 

I don’t think it’s nice to use the word cheap on a close friend, and it’s certainly not nice to use it incorrectly in our translations.

It’s hence advisable that translators always refer to a source-language dictionary.

3. Set Aside Time to Double-Check Your Work.

It’s a no-brainer to double-check our work. But how many translators are actually disciplined enough and can set aside sufficient time before deadlines to do that?

I’ve seen translations spotted with mistranslations and omissions, which show that translators have not checked their work. Perhaps due to time shortage or sheer indifference.

I usually set aside at least one month or three weeks before a deadline, depending on the length of the original text I’m translating, to review the entire book again – sentence by sentence.

And I must say, it’s such a crucial (perhaps, the most crucial) part of my translation process because the quality of my translation always improves considerably after I’ve removed all the mistranslations and rectified the omissions.  

There Is a Better Translation

We can always translate better and produce better translations if we pay more careful attention to reading the original texts, work with a source-language dictionary, and set aside time to review our translations. 

I once read Barbara Wright: Translation as Art, which juxtaposes the late Barbara Wright’s – one of the most outstanding translators of French literature – excellent translations with other translators’ translations of the same works.

And a very important lesson I took away from that was: there is always a better translation.

I believe that translators can always produce ‘the better translation’ if we have the right disciplines. 


P.S. If you’re looking for a competent translator to translate your book (Korean-English, English-Korean), contact us at

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