Bonanza! Striking Translation Gold by Mining Parallel Texts

Let me start with a confession: I barely passed translation theory in college. I scraped by with a C after several nights in a row of frantic caffeine-fueled essay writing. The problem? Theory bored me. If you talked to me about coherence and calque my eyes glazed over. Back then, I just wanted to translate. I didn’t want to think about the reasons why I made specific choices. And I certainly didn’t want to spend too much time mulling over equivalence, effectiveness, Skopos Theory, and all their friends.

After graduation, I consigned translation theory to the deepest, darkest corners of my mind. And that’s where it stayed. Over the years, I started to think more about why I chose to translate a certain way. I attended a few presentations at ATA Annual Conferences given by translators1 who discussed how they justified their approaches to translating texts into English using their own research. It seemed that drawing on parallel texts—documents in the source or target language that are similar to the text to be translated in terms of subject or text type—also helped them demonstrate their value as an expert to clients.

I was intrigued. And when another client email arrived asking why I turned a long passive German sentence (with, no kidding, 47 words) into three shorter active English sentences, I knew I wanted some firm evidence to back up my approach.

The Project

I was translating more and more sustainability reports at the time, so this felt like a logical place to start researching parallel texts. My plan was simple (or so I thought): find 50 German-language and 50 English-language sustainability reports and compare them. (I use the term “sustainability report” here, but companies also refer to these kinds of reports as environmental, social, and governance [ESG] reports, corporate social responsibility [CSR] reports, non-financial reports, or integrated reports, among other names.)

How did I choose which reports to use? Well, this was where the problems started. From experience, I knew that a sustainability report could range from a few simple data-heavy pages to several hundred sheets filled with extensive details of everything that the company had achieved in the past year. To achieve comparability, I focused on the chief executive officer’s letter, which is a feature found at the beginning of most reports. I also searched for reports covering the 2020 financial year to see the language that executives, or their ghostwriters, had used to describe the challenges brought on by the pandemic. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the word “unprecedented” appeared frequently.)

Another issue was that many of the reports I initially found were written by non-native speakers or translated from another language into English. For the purposes of my project, I decided to focus on German-language reports from German, Austrian, and Swiss businesses and English-language reports from companies based in Australia, Canada, the U.K., and the U.S.—not a perfect metric, but a solid starting point.

To ensure I included examples of the best in sustainability reporting, I also trawled through lists of the best reports written within the past few years and searched for reporting by the leading players across various industries. I also tried to find examples of how smaller companies reported on their environmental, social, and governance activities.

Initial Insights

A few months later, I ended up with a bulging folder on my computer. I quickly realized the scale of my undertaking after seeing how many hours it took me to fill in four columns in a simple Excel file (company name, website, industry, and report name). The fifth column, the chief executive officer’s opening letter, broke my resolve. I couldn’t even imagine starting a sixth column (the average number of words per sentence) and repeating that process 100 times. With this in mind and plenty of translation projects on my desk, I decided to zoom out and look at the big picture.

It would not come as a huge surprise to anybody working in my language pair to learn that, broadly speaking, the chief executive officer letters in the German reports focused more on facts and figures and were more corporate in nature, while the letters in the English reports contained more storytelling elements and were more personal. After examining more than a dozen reports in each language, I identified four recurring themes in English-language sustainability reports.

Make It Conversational: The messages from chief executive officers in the English-language reports often had a strong voice. They used plenty of contractions and started sentences with phrases like “but,” “and,” “so,” and “because.” In many cases, the letter could have easily been read aloud as a speech. By contrast, the letters in the German reports (and far too many of their English translations) were much more formal.

Make It Active: While the German reports were filled with passive, noun-heavy sentences, their English counterparts were active and emphatic. The latter also had plenty of gerunds and imperatives sprinkled throughout the copy. As a rule, the English-language reports varied sentence length and used rhythm as a stylistic device.

Make It Idiomatic: I noticed that the English-language reports sprinkled idioms throughout. For example, in a report from a rail company, phrases like “journey,” “destination,” “full steam ahead,” “on the move,” “slam on the brakes,” “on the right track,” and “end of the line” were featured heavily in the English versions, but were rarely seen in German texts.

Make It Alliterative: English loves alliteration. Or should that be adores alliteration? In the sustainability reporting arena, many companies combined alliteration with “the rule of three” (i.e., the idea that groups of three words, phrases, or ideas are more engaging, effective, and memorable). I found several examples of reports mentioning “customers, colleagues, and community,” “planet, people, and purpose,” and “company, climate, and communities.”

What Next?

My next step was to ditch my Excel chart with its multiple columns in favor of industry-specific swipe files containing examples of good writing in English sustainability reports. I’m still slowly digging my way through the list of 100 reports. And many reports covering the 2021 financial year have already been published. So, there’s a never-ending well of material to excavate. As I come across effective renderings, I cut and paste the phraseology—a practice one translator referred to as “larcenous reading.”

As a full-time translator and copywriter, this approach feels more manageable to me. If I had six months or a year to devote to a research project of this scale, I could undoubtedly crunch the numbers and find that sustainability reports have an average sentence length of eight words in English and 14 in German.2 But at this stage of my career, I find it much more manageable and efficient to spend 30 minutes a week digging through a report or two. If I’m lucky, I’ll occasionally strike gold in the form of just the right phrasing to use in my next project.

Translators can unearth a veritable treasure trove of information by consulting similar texts in their target language. Perhaps this technique will work for you!

  1. I attended Barbara Sabel’s 2014 ATA Annual Conference presentation (Beyond Terminology and Phraseology: Cultural Differences in Technical Journalism and How Translators Can Bridge the Gap) and David Jemielity’s 2010 ATA Annual Conference presentation (Why French>English Annual Report Translations Read Like…Translations).
  2. This is just a guestimate. Come back to me in a decade and I might have some actual numbers!

Abigail Dahlberg is a German>English translator and copywriter specializing in sustainability issues. After receiving an MA in translation and interpreting at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh in 2001, she worked as a staff translator in Germany for several years before relocating to Kansas City and launching a freelance business, now operating as Greener Words, in 2005. She served four terms as president of the Mid-America Chapter of the American Translators Association, her local ATA Chapter, and regularly shares her knowledge by writing articles and giving conference presentations.

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