Spicing up your translations with little-used expressions

At last summer’s Translate in the Catskills conference (I know, I talk about this conference all the time…it was great!), instructor Grant Hamilton commented that he had never seen a translator use the expressions “giving short shrift” or “paying little heed.” Grant’s point was that most translators stick to the path of least resistance, the expressions that they’ve used over and over again when writing their translations. Since then, I’ve been making a deliberate effort to spice up my translations with expressions that are accurate but that give the translation a flair that hackneyed phrases don’t have. I’ve found that even boilerplate legal documents are more engaging to read when you really focus on writing well. I think it’s important (especially in legal documents) not to sacrifice meaning for style, but especially if you write for direct clients, compelling style can be a real boost for your translations.

For example, how about “This ruling gave corporations full freedom to set prices” versus “This ruling gave corporations free reign to set prices.” This also led me to an interesting discussion of Free Rein or Free Reign (I decided to use “free reign”).  Here are some “bland to spicy” makeovers that I rarely see in translations:

  • Bland: All at once. Spicy: In one fell swoop.
  • Bland: This decision conflicts with current thinking. Spicy: This decision goes against the grain.
  • Bland: This marketing strategy is innovative. Spicy: This marketing strategy is ahead of the curve.
  • Bland: The corporate spokesperson was  honest. Spicy: The corporate spokesperson did not mince words.
  • Bland: The situation changed. Spicy: The tables turned.
  • Bland: The plaintiff did not seem upset by the decision. Spicy: The plaintiff seemed to take the decision in stride.
  • Bland: As more consumers switch to organic food… Spicy: As more consumers jump on the organic bandwagon…
  • Bland: An atmosphere of distrust. Spicy: A cloud of suspicion.

And feel free to add your own favorite but little-used expressions as well! A few caveats: even when you’re trying to write compellingly, it’s important to maintain the register of the original document. You don’t want expressions like “a dog eat dog world” in a formal legal document. Likewise, know your audience. Especially if you’re writing for non-native speakers of the target language, avoid culturally-specific or sports-inspired metaphors that will fall flat. Americans particularly love to include sports expressions such as home run, hole in one, Hail Mary pass, so avoid these if your target audience will be confused by them.

14 Responses to “Spicing up your translations with little-used expressions”
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