Sometimes, a definition of a certain term does not tell the whole story. That seems to be the case with the translator’s note. This is a tool to which every experienced professional translator has to resort to once in a while.

Formally, a translator’s note is “ an annotation or comment users can attach to a segment. They can be used to communicate between stakeholders in the project. It is particularly suited for Translators & Reviewers to add a comment when they are unsure of the accuracy of the translation or they need more contextual or technical information to complete the best translation possible.

But, that definition does not always tell the whole story. Sometimes, it is not just the case of not being sure of the accuracy of a translation. In their work, translators often encounter situations when it is very hard to express the exact meaning of a word or a term, or even a complete idea expressed in the original text.

There, the translators have to resort to finding a solution that is the closest to the original meaning. Very often, they might need to use completely different words or sentence structures than those in the original. What that requires is extensive knowledge of both the original and the target language. Very often, an abundance of imagination too.

This is particularly the case when they need to handle a text that needs detailed localization, or a text that comes in an archaic version of the original language. Translating poetry or song lyrics can also present such challenges.

In all those cases too, translators come into situations where they have to explain some of their solutions. The translator’s note is the tool that gives them the opportunity, but also the obligation to do so.

Translator’s note – an explaining tool that should be used with care

Author and translator Amanda DeMarco I’m her essay for Los Angeles Times about how far can a translator go in their work wrote the following: “A TRANSLATOR must naturally take certain liberties with other people’s words in order to wrest the most truth into the text.”

Still, there are certain rules and obligations when taking those liberties, and in those cases, the translator has to explain what liberties she/he took and why. The tool for such explanations is the translator’s note.

One large translation agency resorts to Wikipedia’s definition of translator’s note: “A note (usually a footnote or an endnote) added by the translator to the target text to provide additional information pertaining to the limits of the translation, the cultural background, or any other explanations.” Technically, that note is marked with a TN mark.

But that two-letter mark can bring along a number of things. As the above source explains, “in a perfect world, a completed translation would be accepted as submitted.” Each line of the translated text should be “the perfect rendering of each possible translative option with no further clarification required.”

However, in reality, translators are likely to come across instances that give them pause during the translation process. Whether that be a misspelled word, an obtuse phrase, or otherwise. As such, it’s sometimes necessary to leave a translator’s note in the document. With it, you can alert your client to a problem in the source text. You can also elaborate on the reason for a certain interpretive option (above).

It is not always the case that the end-users of a translation are familiar with the need for a translator’s notes. “Instead, they expect a note-free translation without any queries.”

So, when should a translator use this tool and how should she/he handle it?

Possible uses and handling

In reality, translators are likely to come across instances that give them pause during the translation process. This can be a misspelled word, an obtuse phrase, or otherwise. As such, it’s sometimes necessary to leave a translator’s note in the document to alert your client to a problem in the source text. It can also elaborate on the reason for a certain interpretive option (Tomedes, above).

There is one very straightforward case when a translator has to resort to using the translator’s note. It is not so unusual that the original text he has to translate comes to his desk with a mistake. It could be a misspelled name or a wrong date. Very often, that is the case with official or legal documents or general non-fiction texts.

In such a case, a translator has two options. One is to make the correction and then insert a note about it. He would need to give the reason for the change and note what was the original. The other possibility is to leave the text as is. Still, he again has to write a note pointing to a precise name, date, or fact.

In the case above, as in other translator’s notes instances, there are various ways to add notes to a translation. Popular methods include simply using parentheses inserted directly into the text or prefixing a comment with the abbreviation ‘TN’ or ’t/n’. Making use of footnotes is also a popular method among translators, although if the source text already contains footnotes then this method may cause confusion (above).

When a translator uses the TH abbreviation, he should make sure that in the first instance he writes the translator’s note in full.

More on possible uses and handling of translator’s notes

Any specific translator’s note can have two purposes. The first would be to draw the attention of all the eventual readers of the text. Such a note could explain some facts about the original author, the context in which he wrote the text. It could also explain some of the translation solutions that will help the reader in the target language understand the original text better.

On the other hand, there are instances are intended solely for editors or specific clients. Such notes do not have a purpose to appear in the final, published, or delivered version of the translation. In those cases, it’s appropriate, and perhaps more convenient, to use the comment function of various word processing software. “This will alert the client to various issues they need to follow up with you or consider by themselves before publishing the translation.”

The situations where a translator has to make an intervention with a note can be quite varied. That is why translator’s notes are one of the constant discussion topics on probably the largest translator’s forum in the English language.

For example, on one occasion, a translator was tasked with providing detailed notes for each interpretive option she chose and then requesting how she justified her chosen translation. What complicates matters further was the fact that she was transcribing an audio recording that contained a number of informalities and redundancies.

In this, and quite a few other cases, translators can either use a rule of thumb or need to discuss the matter with their clients. Sometimes, it turns out to be much more work than just a ’simple’ translation.

translator's note

Localization and imagination

Localizing the text for target language users of a text has taken many shapes and forms. The expansion of online services often makes it necessary for translators to be as specific for their end-users as possible. This would mean that sometimes they have to adjust their translation of the text into a language of a region, not only a specific country.

With such a large audience online that can read texts in English, a translated text from another language might need either extensive translator’s notes or a lot of resourceful solutions on the translator’s part. Very often, he has to use both. In such cases, he would probably need to have two sets of notes. One for the clients who requested the translation, the other for the audience itself.

But in both cases, a translator needs to have a full command both of the original and the target language. And not only that, the knowledge of relevant facts, names, and cultural traits are very often essential.

Sometimes though, a translator needs to use a full spread of his imagination. “Reality and perfection I use as synonymous terms — everyone knows what happens when you’re trapped in the dream of the Other. In other words, in translation, anything you do will be an abuse of somebody else’s aesthetics, which you, you poor thing, won’t be able to resist. Irreverence and sincerity are not opposed, and where truth seems double-faced, there is no woman more paradoxical than myself (DeMarco, above).”

The passage above just shows the resourcefulness translators very often need to use. Also, why a translator’s notes are more of a necessity than a by-product of the difficulties in their work.

Translator’s note and video and machine translation

Video translation is slowly beginning to dominate the translator’s world. But, one question begs the answer. Is there a place for translator’s notes in video translation?

As Tomedes (above) explains, “video translation has its own quirks. Like audio translation, there are times when the sound quality may mean that a word or phrase can’t be heard clearly enough to be transcribed (and therefore translated). This can be recorded through a translator’s note. The translator could also take an educated guess as to what the missing content was and translate that, but again they would need to include a note to let the client know what had been assumed.”

Then there is the question of the expanding use of machine translation and tools like TRADOS. With post-editing machine translation, the quality of the machine-produced translation often leaves the translator with the need to explain a whole range of points! While much of this simply relates to professional pride, there are times when the translator will need to clarify something with the client as a result of a mix-up that the computer has made during the translation. There may also be times when a query relating to the source text occurs just as it would during a regular piece of translation work. In these cases, the translator’s notes are essential (above).