Understanding Style

Just as in Photography, where the Automatic Mode does not offer enough choices to be creative to demanding photographers, a bilingual with little education may lack the skills to translate with style.

How important is style? Some translations are hopeless from the start. Often these are a result of translation software, or are the work of native speakers struggling with a grammar book in one hand and a dictionary in the other. These are good for a laugh. Other translations are technically accurate, yet the sentences do not flow as smoothly as they should; word order or choice of vocabulary may be unduly influenced by the original language and by ignorance.

Education Matters. If you ask five people to write up a 100-word product description, you will get five texts; some clearer and more readable than others, but undoubtedly those familiar with the subject will produce a better text. Thus, the more technical your subject, the more important it is that your translator knows it inside-out rather than learning the subject at your expense, or even worse, making up terms.

Beware, bilinguals may speak both languages fluently, but they may not necessarily be good at moving information between languages, especially in writing. Many bilinguals overestimate their communication skills and lack formal training that can only be acquired through a college education.

Professional translators are effective bridges between languages. They produce texts that read well because they use the appropriate grammar, syntax, punctuation, style, and terminology of the target language.

Good translators are inquisitive. They strip down the sentences entirely before creating new ones in the target language. Furthermore, they ask questions along the way. Good translators build solid relationships with the author. Good translators are proud to sign their work.

Lucila Huffstetter
B.A.  Foreign Languages, French and Spanish,  cum laude

Understanding Context

When translating into the target language, the translator needs to understand the context in which the author is using specific words. The easiest example about the importance of context is in the word “glass.” In English, people use a glass to drink water; they also use a glass to drink wine. Thus, the word ¨glass¨ can contain either water or wine.

In Spanish, there is a specific word for a “glass of water” and another for a “glass of wine.” Usually, people drink water in a “vaso,” and drink wine in a “copa.” The context would determine which word to use. Was it at dinner, when someone lifted the glass to give a toast?  Was it at home during lunch, when someone picked up the glass? Now imagine translating “el vaso de vino” in a romantic novel. Chaotic!

I have seen translations that use poor word choice because of misunderstanding the context, such as the example from the book Dynamic Weddings, by David Beckstead (used with permission).

English Version
Dynamic line and the dutch tilt
I have had the opportunity to critique thousands of images and compositions. One in-camera effect I see used very often is tilting the camera plane. This effect is meant to enhance the composition, but is it an effective composition tool? Many photographers instinctively use tilt but, when asked, find it hard to explain why they used it on each shot. There are great compositional reasons to use tilt. There are also many more reasons to avoid tilting. Ultimately the effect of tilting is at its strongest when used to create a more powerful frame and when used with absolute intent.

Poor Spanish Translation
Línea Dinámica y Plano Holandés
Ya tuve la oportunidad de evaluar millones de imágenes y composiciones. Uno de los efectos que observo con mayor frecuencia, es la inclinación del plano de la cámara, también llamado plano holandés. Es usado para mejorar la composición, pero ¿realmente es una herramienta composicional? Muchos fotógrafos lo utilizan de manera intuitiva, pero cuando son interrogados sobre los motivos del uso de la misma, les resulta difícil explicarlos. Existen buenas razones composicionales para usar esta inclinación, pero también hay muchos motivos para no usarla. En última instancia, el efecto de la inclinación de la cámara es válido cuando se usa para crear un encuadramiento más fuerte y de manera absolutamente intencional.


  • Although “Dutch” means ”people from the Netherlands,” it also means “a state of disfavor, difficulty, or trouble” (Encarta Dictionary – English, North America). In the context of Dynamic Weddings, the author explains the importance of creating tension in an image by tilting the camera. By using the term “Holandés” (people of the Netherlands), the translator not only made up a term that does not exist in photography, but also confuses the Spanish speaking readers. I would have translated “dutch tilt” as: “Plano de Tensión” or “Inclinación de la Cámara.”
  • Exaggeration: Author says “thousands of images;” translation says “millions of images.”
  • Awkward term: “herramienta composicional” does not make sense even though “tool” is “herramienta” in Spanish. Also, the use of the term “composicional” makes things look more complicated than they actually are. In the context of this book, I would have used a simple term such as “método de composición.¨

Correct Translation
Linea Dinámica e Inclinación de la Cámara
He tenido la oportunidad de criticar miles de imágenes y de composiciones. Un efecto que observo con frecuencia es la inclinación de la cámara. Este efecto se usa para mejorar la composición, pero ¿es éste un método efectivo de composición? Muchos fotógrafos inclinan la cámara instintivamente, pero tienen dificultad de explicar por qué lo hicieron cuando se les pregunta. Existen muchas razones para inclinar la cámara. También existen mucho más razones para no hacerlo. En última instancia, el efecto de inclinación resulta más efectivo cuando la cámara se inclina intencionalmente para crear una composición más poderosa.

Final Thoughts
To translate a book about photography, the translator must know photography to be able to understand the context. Amateur photographers usually shoot at eye-level. If the translator is an amateur photographer, they would have difficulty imagining that skilled photographers lean down or go up on a ladder to exaggerate the effect of tilting. The translator also needs to understand that the effect of tilting varies when using a wide angle lens versus a telephoto lens. Thus, as result of little knowledge about photography, the translator missed what the author meant by ¨dutch plane,¨ and created a term that does not exist in photography. Finally, the worse mistake that an amateur translator can make is to assume, rather than asking for clarification when in doubt.