Improving your target language writing skills


Guest post by Corinne McKay

Corinne McKay is an ATA-certified French to English translator, and the author of How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator, a career how-to guide now in its third edition. She writes the popular blog Thoughts on Translation (, a lively gathering place for freelance translators from around the world. Corinne is also the current (2015-2017) President-elect of the American Translators Association.


Most translators would agree that in our profession, we have three core sets of skills: reading in our source language, writing in our target language, and knowledge of our specialization(s). Of these, I would argue that target language writing skills are a) the most likely to need improvement, and b) the most difficult to improve, for most people.

In part, I think we neglect our target language writing skills because they seem less obvious than source language or specialization skills. You clearly can’t be a translator if you haven’t mastered at least one foreign language, and you clearly can’t translate in a specialized area you know nothing about. However, anyone who has edited translations can attest that there are plenty of translators out there who are not great writers in their native language. Even if you are a good writer, the need to finish a translation on a tight deadline, or the pressure of translating thousands of words a day, day in and day out, can hinder your best efforts. Following are a few tips to keep your native language writing on track.

Tip 1: Realize that the source language seeps into your native language writing. When you’re feeling tired or lazy (which all of us are, at some point!), it’s easy to lapse into a word for word translation. The path of least resistance is to “just translate,” without thinking about whether you would write those same words if you weren’t translating them. A good first step is to know what expressions make your translation sound like a translation. If you translate Romance languages into English, an example of this is the phrase “of the,” since these languages generally don’t have a possessive format such as apostrophe + s. But wording such as “The offices of the Ministry,” or “The decision of the committee” are much less fluid in English than “The Ministry’s offices” or “The committee’s decision.” The same goes for passive voice: lots of Romance language writers *love* passive voice, whereas in English it sounds weak and impersonal. So, get it out of your translations!

Tip 2: If you translate into English, keep your sentences short and put the important point first. Many non-English languages are wordier than English, and writers tend to prefer sentences that are “end-loaded,” with the beginning of the sentence leading up to the main point. In English, shorter, punchier sentences are likely to engage your readers much more effectively.

Tip 3: Know your own tendencies, and fight them. I’m an inherently wordy person. I talk too much, I write too much (both in terms of sentence length and length of the entire piece) and I love a good parenthetical clause (see above). I can’t eliminate these tendencies all together, but I try to be aware of them and fight them. If I look at the length of the French document, I tell myself that my translation should be at least 25% shorter, and if I think of a really good way to phrase something in even fewer words than that, I go for it.

Tip 4: Don’t get complacent; keep reviewing the basics. Some aspects of being a good writer are hard to teach or even identify: you’ll read some translators’ work and just say, “Wow…” without really knowing why. But many translators fall short simply because their writing breaks some cardinal rules: it’s convoluted, difficult to follow, contains spelling or grammar errors, has a mishmash of verb tenses, and features rambling, 50-word sentences strung together with em dashes and semicolons. So, keep up your basics by reading style guides or blogs about good writing. I love the website and podcast Grammar Girl (, which covers one grammar or usage point in every post.

Tip 5: Read good writing whenever you can. The most helpful tactic is to read really good writing in your translation specializations; find natively written documents that are like the documents you translate. But whatever the case, read good writing and really dissect what makes it so good. I rarely have the attention span to read complete books unless I’m on vacation, but I read The New Yorker almost every week. When an article really engages me, I try to look at why. It’s usually not just the topic, but the way that the writer addresses it and weaves the story, and this skill can definitely be learned.


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