Category Archives: Research methods

Doing research as a translator

Research is a basic human skill, no Ph.D. needed to perform research. As toddlers, we researched our surroundings by using all of our senses, stumbling along the way, burning our fingertips when grasping a hot ladle or stinging our eyes while getting scrubbed and having our abundant hair washed with shampoo. We acquired knowledge through experience, or experiential learning.

Our nascent research skills get a bit stumped along the way, particularly if we’re subjected to rote learning and a sanitized, tradition-protecting educational infrastructure: we memorize and recite facts, factoids and fictions to later regurgitate them in a different format: oral lessons, multipage theses, business reports. If we’re part of a religious tradition with emphasis on certitude, all seeds of doubt be damned, we become survivalists, absorbing and internalizing received wisdom and passing it along later in life as professionals and instructors of every kind. What a critical thinker and thoughtful mind would consider outlandish ideas or impractical courses of action become mainstream thinking and knowledge, such as believing that there are two kinds of translators: those who work with agencies and those who work with premium clients.

So, what is research and how can it help us translators? During my two doctoral semesters in Portugal, I learned a thing or two about academic research and writing polished and purposeful papers. All this activity made me reflect on skills that I had exercised in other periods of my life, from my tweenage years to adulthood.


Proper research spans our whole lifetime, not just a job’s timeline.

First, research is born of intellectual curiosity. It is intellectual as opposed—at first— to pragmatic or practical curiosity because we want to acquire new knowledge for its own sake, for the satisfaction it brings to solve a mental puzzle, even if it doesn’t have immediate real-life application. That comes later as we continue our research.

Second, research requires observation, examination and analysis. We observe a phenomenon, an event or an incongruous situation, we examine it to understand the general idea of it, then we analyze it to break it down into more digestible parts. For instance, my idea of an engine’s torque became clearer after my brother explained it as a function of a motor’s shaft, along with concepts such as idling, engine power and resistance. All these steps require a higher level of abstraction absent in glancing an article or fast-reading a white paper.

Third, research focuses on facts and conclusions, regardless of how we personally feel about the nature of our eventual discovery. While it may be acceptable to have hopes for our research on how many Emperor penguins are born in January, we have to put aside our emotions in the face of the number of dead penguins because letting our feelings influence how we view and interpret facts and design our conclusions is just unacceptable. And unprofessional.

For instance, if I say I distrust the Bureau of Labor’s percentage about the annual growth of our profession, I have to be willing to argue for and against that number, investigate how the Bureau of Labor arrived at it, what criteria were used in interpreting facts and shaping conclusions…in particular the conclusion that the profession is growing without taking into account micro and macroeconomic factors such as regional economies, universities’ rate of graduates in translation, and price dynamics at local, national and international scale. True research abhors soundbites and requires careful reading and consideration, both in very short supply among the masses of speed-loving geeks that translators tend to become in ever increasing numbers.

Fourth, research not only accepts but welcomes third-party testing of its preliminary and final assumptions. It is not enough for just one astronomer to declare the appearance of a brand-new star or exoplanet as his findings have to be independently verified by his peers in other observatories and countries. Sadly, we translators seem to depend on a popularity index: we listen more attentively to those who blog the most, who have more published books, who are more charismatic, who attend the greatest number of conferences or write more journal-published articles. Authority by SEO and search hits, not by research.

Leaving aside our global situation as translators, I’ve been considering how to explain my research methods to nontranslators. A nontranslator, such as a client, a boss, a project manager or a coworker (who, by the way, aren’t necessarily monolingual or ignorant about what translators really do) requires careful explanation of translation research that is not condescending nor uppity, one that is not too complex but not simplistic and Manichean. It is a real struggle for me because the way we translators individually do research is as intricate and mysterious as the way we process our translations in our heads before we write them down.

Those of us who drive on a daily basis may describe the series of decisions taken as simply driving, without dividing it into all its component parts like getting into a car, putting the stick in drive, checking our mirrors, buckling up before pushing the gas pedal, not to mention the myriad decisions we make aided by our eyes and ears, scanning in front of the vehicle and sideways, reading the intention of the other drivers surrounding us, feeling the wheel in the palms of our hands and knowing, almost instinctively, how much to turn it every which way and with what force or gentleness. All this is part of what we can call the topology of driving. We do something similar with translation. And research.

If a nontranslator asks us how we came up with a term or a turn of phrase in our translation, we simply say we found some clues in our specialized dictionaries or by reading industry articles or catalogs. But research is much more than that. You and I conduct this research in different ways depending on topic, deadline and availability of reliable resources. To many clients and translation buyers, the key mot juste is terminology or industry terms. They demand we know their jargon, buzzwords and language, how they call this thingamajik or that process. A company’s product is supported by a variety of different texts, from user guides to instructions to sales materials, but to a client, a business owner, coworker or project manager, all these texts share the same terms and the same brand. They’re right…and wrong.

For instance, Huawei makes routers for “innovative enterprise applications from small to super huge scale.” Words such as innovative and super huge scale are marketingspeak, but they’re part of the branding strategy for this company. If the translation of this text does not have words with the same oomph or impact as the English, a client might consider it a translation failure, despite all of our careful research. It’s the same with clunky English imports such as big data and [movie] streaming. They’re often left in English because, well, the translator couldn’t find an equally impressive Spanish or French or German equivalent, as if languages’ sole virtue for making global understanding possible resided on import words and false cognates.

Confronted with the task of explaining how I do research for my translations or how I come about with a sentence where a certain brand- or marketing-language word does not appear, I have to learn to go down into the thinking strata of my mind and emerge with the tools and methods I use to inquire about new concepts and express them in writing. However, even if I have a cogent narrative to offer, I have to run it through several filters to avoid coming across as a know-it-all spewing condescending prattle.

An uphill, ongoing challenge, this is. But a particular aptitude common to all translators is at my disposal, regardless of my personality or whether I am popular or not. The ability to translate, in its broadest sense, a complicated concept into an understandable one. Since I translate for a given reader or audience and tune my writing to their level of understanding, so should I proceed with filtering my innermost mental mechanics on research to provide not just a clear explanation but a persuasive one.


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Filed under Branding, Buzzword, Research in translation, Research methods, The craft of translation, Translation as writing

What’s so disruptive about “disruptive”?

According to Google’s Ngram graph generator, the phrase “disruptive technology” appeared in print in the mid 1990s. Another phenomenon appeared at the same time: the bubble.

Douglas Rushkoff, author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity, recently wrote an article titled “Startups are not as disruptive as they appear,” adding:

“…the rapid growth of companies like AOL and Amazon —no matter the strength of their underlying businesses— whetted Wall Street’s appetite for exponential growth. And young founders took the bait, prioritizing inflated valuations over sustainable business models. The ideal shifted from building a company to getting it acquired.” (TIME magazine, March 21, 2016)

My readers might surmise that I’m about to indicate the correct Spanish translation for “disruptive”.  Alas, Fundéu has already done it:


I disagree, since we can use innovador, radical, revolucionario among other terms. As useful as Fundéu is for us translators and language users, I don’t just grab the first option. First, let’s see how the word is used in contemporary English. The American Heritage Dictionary (online version) defines disruptive thus:


In this short analysis of the adjective disruptive, specific lexicogrammatical coordinates are required. It is not enough to define a word but to see what other words can be used in its stead. Here’s a list of conventional synonyms from


We find more up-to-date information in the online MacMillan dictionary. The new usage for disruptive appears as “showing approval; original and new in a way that causes change.” But, doesn’t the English language have words for that already? Examples: innovative, radical, revolutionary.
macmillan-dictionary-disruptiveIt is clear that we can arrive at more intelligible options that are not buzzwords. Buzzwords can be part of an argot (casual vocabulary) or jargon (professional vocabulary). They aren’t just communicating a message (“this new memory chip is revolutionary!”) but also a philosophy. Let’s remember, however, that a company’s or manufacturer’s philosophy (so enshrined in their Mission and Vision statements) mask the reasons why the consumer should buy their products.

One of the features of a translation is communication, but it is hardly its only function. A translation can convey beauty (a poem), lifesaving information (hazardous material datasheet), instructions to achieve a task (repair of a water heater) and much more. To say that translators are communicators is as reductive and pedestrian as saying that a piano keyboard makes sounds.

A translator consulting Google for frequency of use of a certain neologism as his primary method of determining the right word in a translation is not doing his job. You, the end user, the project manager, the customer, the company owner, advertising manager or marketing copywriter, deserve better. After all, you also have access to a web browser and connection to the Internet. You could have arrived at the same conclusion by doing a search yourself. So, why are you paying that translator after all?

Being bilingually skilled to work with words is not enough. Pre-Internet, a rush search for an equivalent in a foreign language would involve consulting a dictionary. But a dictionary definition can only do so much. Reading actual usage of that word in the real world, in the here and now, requires a more empirical research method, and that necessitates reading relevant texts. For a translator, searching for the equivalent of our mot du jour, “disruptive,” should include not only reading the relevant English texts but also the French, Spanish or Chinese texts that are also relevant and specific.

A word about relevant texts: the translator will need to select the texts that show word usage with the least load of intentionality. Put it another way, a relevant text for our research purposes is any text that is not trying to sell you something (an idea or a product). With practice, a translator will learn to identify relevant texts and discard irrelevant ones. Now, back to being “disruptive.” As you may have surmised, the exposition of definitions, synonyms and arguments above is part of my own research of this word to better understand not just what meaning it carries but also how it (the word) interacts with other parts of speech, with other texts and with other meanings.

The previous paragraph may sound like a headache to the average person, but all those processes happen inside the head of a properly trained professional translator or terminologist. We are just seeing the product of those processes in this entry to illustrate how the complex may seem simple and quick, but only on the surface.

Any translator worth his salt will tell you that a proper translation will carry the original meanings over to the receiving language: your slogan will sound as peppy and impactful in French as it does in English; your technical descriptions will appear as clear and purposeful in the foreign language just like your technical writer or engineer made them in the original language. Your English advertisement will be as persuasive in Chinese. But let’s be careful: a translator is just the intermediary, the bridge between you and your end user. There is no need for the translator to adopt marketingspeak or advertising lingo. Yet that’s exactly what some translators, judging by what they write on blogs or industry publications, seem to have done with “disruptive.” They have become besotted with the promises behind that adjective, and that becomes a problem. Instead of being translators, they act like product evangelists (buzzword use totally intended). Like a faithful interpreter, a translator should act agnostic to the meaning or message he is carrying over for you to another language and culture.

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Filed under Buzzword, Diccionario Real Academia Española (DRAE), Fundéu BBVA, Neologism, Online dictionaries, Qualified translators, Research for translators, Research methods, Thesaurus, Word search