Translating Articles not in Your Native Reading Language

I used to despair when I would find a non-English article about an object I was researching. I am a typical American in that I only speak and read English. Not that I haven’t tried to learn other languages, but I did not retain the paltry attempts that were made in my secondary school to teach me Spanish. When I was in college, I was also raising my family, and I had neither the time nor, more importantly, the inclination to learn another tongue.

For a while, I have been researching Viking-age clothing and textiles. Fascinating stuff!! (Not meant sarcastically at all! Okay . . . maybe a little.) Since so much of it is unknown, the debates and conjectures are far and varied. No one really agrees what the Viking Scandinavian costume really looked like, but the experts are all willing to explain their favorite theory. That stuff I do find fascinating!

However (now that’s just a fancy BUT!), most of the writing on Viking-age archaeology, especially on the textile finds, is NOT in English. So how do I, as a researcher, garner information from these foreign written texts? I’ve been asked that quite a few times recently in the same tone of voice that a neophyte asks a mystic how they do what they do.

Let me share my tips and secrets, but first let me say that there is no easy answer. There is NO program out there that is plug and play for converting one language into another. Add to that content specific words like gore, gusset, grave-find, weft, etc. I do not simply "Google Translate" the texts I find.

It is not, however impossible, mystical or magical. It IS however tedious, time-consuming, laborious, and sometimes frustrating, but the knowledge I gain from it makes it worth it for me.

1. Learn to read the language.

No $&!+!!! Yeah, that was a gimme! Seriously, I have started learning to read German and Swedish specifically to translate texts written in German and Swedish. No, I am not proficient at them yet, but I have learned enough little bits about their language structure to help when translation programs fail. And it has given me that inclination I lacked in college to learn more languages.

It doesn’t have the be the several hundred dollar Rosetta Stone program that you use. There are free sites and apps that will get you started and let you know if it is something you want to pursue. Knowing even a little bit of the language will help you decipher between "Accounting for a normal range in weft size, there is nothing to say that they sleeves, gores and body were not cut from the same piece of fabric." and "Taking into account the variation in weft size, there is no way the sleeves, gores and body were cut from the same piece of fabric."

2. Learn the subject specific terms relevant to what you are studying.

I have a 24 page Word document, in size 10 font, titled Foreign Words for Garb. It’s not something I cut and pasted from a website, a book or from anywhere. It started out as a small NotePad document with a few words I found that were relevant to whatever I was looking up. Then it grew. I had to switch to Word when I need a Table of Contents and when I realized that WordPad doesn’t do Russian.

These words I found one at a time while going through articles and books written in other languages. They were painstakingly deciphered in context. I would come across a German pattern for the Skjoldehamn tunic, say, "Oh! That’s the word for a front-centered gore in German," and then write it down.

It has taken me 6 years to accumulate 24 pages of terms, but I started with one word at a time. If you are researching, for example, an apron-dress, and you know of a book or website that is written in two languages that has information about apron-dresses, start there.

3. Use online, instant translate sites.

I said that you can not simply use Google Translate. I did not say that I did not use Google Translate (GT). GT alone will not get a job done. I generally use it in conjunction with Bing Translate and Babylon.

4. Use online, instant translate sites from other countries and in other languages.

I addition to those three sites, I also use translation sites that are native to the language I am translating. For example, if I’m working on a German article on apron-dresses, I find what sites the Germans use to translate German into English. Make sure that the sites simply do not plug into GT, Bing or Babylon (many do). Finding a site that is a stand-alone site is sometimes difficult, but well worth it.

Why? Because idioms don’t translate! But if it’s a technical book, there shouldn’t be any idioms, right? Wrong!

Expressions are built into all languages, and they are not always universal. Here’s an example.

In English, we use "seeing" to mean something we view with our eyes.

We also use it to me understanding. "I see what you mean." "Do you see what I’m talking about?"

We also use it to mean having experienced something, "I’ve seen him do that with my own eyes." or "Had to see it for myself to believe it." In this example, sometimes we are talking about something we do actually observe with our eyes, but not always.

What if I stuck any of those phrases into one of my three biggie instant translators? Is "I see what you mean" the same as "I have viewed your hypothesis"? Maybe on some level, but they don’t convey the same meaning.

Using the translator that a native person uses keeps intact more of the meaning behind the phrases rather than the literal translations. It’s not perfect, but in conjunction with the 3 biggie English ones, they help.

In general, I have two or three of these foreign translation sites pulled up for any given project.

5. Use online thesaurus sites.

Both English ones and ones for other languages. Again, use the sites that a native speaker would use and not just the generic thesaurus site with multi-language features.

These help decipher things when specific words just don’t make sense. Like if carve pops up instead of cut. I cut the fabric. I carve the turkey. Yet in Norwegian, there may not be that big of a distinction. In English, one makes sense and the other does not.

6. Be patient and ask for help if needed.

This is a slow process, but the more you do it, the quicker you get.

If you get really stuck, remember that there are other people in this world who are also interested in the same information that you are seeking. With the internet, finding them is a Google search and click away. It’s okay to ask a native speaker for help. Find a website written in that language on that subject, and email the person. I certainly wouldn’t ask them to translate a whole book, but if I were having problems with a specific section, they may be willing to help.

Good luck! And happy researching!!
Esperanza de Navarra


One thought on “Translating Articles not in Your Native Reading Language

  1. Martha says:

    Great info to know!

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