5 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Translating a Book


1/2/20244 min read

Have you ever read a book and thought, "Wow, -insert foreign author- speaks my language incredibly well!"?

Nope, me neither. We tend not to notice when a book is well translated, unless you're a translator yourself and are job-conditioned to look out for any good or bad solutions.

But let me tell you that a reader will notice when a text doesn't feel natural, when there's something that makes them arch their eyebrow and think that the sentence they just read is understandable, but they wouldn't have said it that way.

It is up to the translator to pass the message in the most seamless and in the smoothest way possible. Anyone reading it should just enjoy it without questioning this or that sentence.

Challenging as it is, translating a book requires linguistic proficiency, cultural understanding, and creativity.

Here are five common mistakes to avoid when translating a book:

1. Ignoring Cultural Nuances

Cultural nuances can be either linguistic (for instance, idioms) or concerning references that do not stand in the target culture.

For example, "And we're back to square one..." is a sentence meaning no matter what you did to move forward; you have to start all over again.

In Italian, which is the language I translate into, we would say "E siamo al punto di partenza...", literally "We are back to the starting point." If we had translated the English idiom literally, a reader would have understood (maybe), but it wouldn't have been the best solution for fluency.

Another example: "Here are thirty dollars, I'll Venmo the rest." This sentence is something you might hear in a contemporary setting. Venmo is a digital wallet, and its services are not available for every country.

So, in Italian, you would either opt for an adaptation using PayPal (although you cannot use it as a verb, just like English does) or opt for an explanation, like "Ecco i tuoi trenta dollari, ti mando il resto con un bonifico."

2. Overlooking Style and Tone

Every author has their own style and tone.

If an author uses simple language, there's no need to make it more refined than it is in the source language. The other way around, if an author uses long sentences full of subordinates, translators should not break those to make them "easier" to read.

In doing so, it feels like a translator is correcting the author. This is not our job; this is what editors do before publishing the book.

3. Literal Translation

Literally translating a sentence can sound fine for like a minute. But maybe reading it again, you'll hear that there is something that just does not fit. It does not feel right.

For example: "Could you drive any slower?" Imagine this sentence is at a Chandler-like level of sarcasm. In Italian, the literal translation would be "Potresti guidare più lentamente?"

I feel like, in order to make it more natural, I would use the exact opposite. Either just adding the negation element to the literal translation "Non potresti guidare/andare ancora più lentamente?" or by using the verb to slow down "Perché non rallenti ancora di più?" (Why don't you slow down even more?)

Another example: "She was a mistake away from getting caught." The person we are talking about is doing something she should not be doing, and she constantly risks getting caught. A mistake is enough to get caught.

In Italian, we would say "Le sarebbe bastato un errore per essere presa/scoperta/beccata" rather than literally translate it as "Era a un errore dall'essere catturata."

4. Ignoring the Target Audience

One of the mistakes you should avoid when translating a book is neglecting your target audience.

For instance, English-speaking authors tend to use more explicit language, especially when writing romance books. There are cultures where swearwords or explicit scenes are taboo, not well-seen, or "condemned."

What should a translator do in that case? Well, there is not a correct answer. Using a more implicit way means changing the text, which should not be done when translating. But using straightforward language might shock the target audience and result in failing to adapt to the culture.

5. Lack of Collaboration with the Author

When possible, it is always preferable to talk to the author about your work.

If you have any questions regarding what is written or what is not, it would be nice to discuss them with the mind behind the work.

Imagine you haven't translated the name of a character, a company, or a city just to find out at the end of the book that it was important to the plot, and your target audience needs to understand the meaning behind that foreign word.

To conclude

So, here are five mistakes to avoid when translating a book. A bonus one is always to make sure your text is well-revised and proofread by a professional. It does not matter if you are the most talented translator in history, errare humanum est. We are humans, and by definition we are made to make mistakes (and learn from them). Make sure you work in tandem with a proofreader or that your client has their own professional for quality check.

Furthermore, it's crucial for translators to continually refine their language skills, stay updated on cultural developments, and be open to feedback.

Translating a book is a dynamic process that requires a deep understanding of both the source and target languages and cultures. To avoid those mistakes, address a professional who will help you impeccably translate your book.

And if Italian is your next-to-translating language, feel free to contact me here.

I will be glad to work with you to achieve your goals and help you to reach a whole new audience!