The Agonies Of A Translator

(ESL learners – click on the bolded words to see explanations and notes. Try the exercise at the bottom after! 🙂 )

How much time can you spend agonizing over two words?

The answer may both surprise and amuse you. 

If you are or know a translator, you will know that this time can go up to one hour – or several. Unfortunately. Not willingly, though. It’s not like I regularly spend my Saturday nights scrutinizing the dictionary. It’s just that, the longer you look at two words, the more similar and different they start to look all at the same time, and they keep looping around your head like a cursed merry-go-round until you yourself start to spiral around into the brink of insanity. 

There are many things about being a translator I didn’t know before becoming one. 

For instance, did you know that if you look at a word long enough, it stops making any sense whatsoever?

Try this with the word “turtle”. First of all, the pronunciation doesn’t match the spelling at all (as with most of the English language, huzzah!). Like, why does the E come after L if we pronounce it before? But if that’s not enough for you, just keep looking. Turtle. Turtle? Tur-tle. Tuuuuurtle. TURTLE. Eltrut. Turtlesome turtles turtled turtly turtling. 

If you’ve resisted this long, you’re either really not trying hard enough, or you have an exceptionally strong grasp on reality.

As fun as this can be, it can be very problematic when you have to produce a text that not only sticks to the original source as much as possible without, well, being the source, and also sounds like a completely independent text that is wholly and unequivocally natural in itself without having its backbone obviously made up of another language. When you have to do this, it’s amazingly helpful if all the words you’re working with sound sane.

If there are any enormous misconceptions in the world, “translating is easy” is one of them. Yeah, you speak two languages, so just take this text in one of them and reproduce it in the other. Yeah! Hahahahaha.

Let me tell you, there is a whole slew of things you don’t know about your language until you try to match it up with another one. You’ve got false friends, concepts that don’t exist in the other language, expressions that don’t have an exact translation, and others that do but make you lose a play on words or stylistic effect. Things that were clear in your language suddenly become ambiguous in another, short sentences become long, the end of a sentence becomes the beginning, and in a nutshell the whole world seems to otherwise turn inside out and upside down. 

I’d love to go into a more detailed rant about all these things you’ve probably never thought about before, but I’d better get back to work now, before the English language turns to mush in my head.

P.S. Don’t get me wrong, I love translating! It inspires and challenges and motivates and stretches me in ways that few other things do. But just like your children that you love, it can still drive you insane sometimes 😉

P.P.S. There will be some more content up soon! I’ve been very busy with some side projects.

ESL Notes (23 words / expressions)

Agonize over something: spend time worrying about something and trying to make a decision about it. You can also use the preposition “about” instead of “over.” Another example: “She agonized for days about whether or not she should take the job.” (Back to the text)

Scrutinize: examine something very carefully, usually because you’re trying to get more information about it or see some particular details. For example: “He scrutinized the men’s faces very carefully, trying to figure out which one of them was lying.” (Back to the text)

Loop around: a loop is a curved, closed shape. When you tie your shoes, you create two loops with the shoelaces. The image below shows an infinity loop.

Therefore, the verb to loop around would be to travel around in a circular direction, as if you were following a loop. When I said that something was looping around my head, I meant that it was going round and round in my head. You can also use “loop” with the preposition “back”, as in to loop back. This means to turn so you go back in the direction that you came from (like if you followed half of the infinity loop shown above). (Back to the text)

Cursed: a magic curse is a bad spell cast by a witch. The verb to curse means either say bad words, or in this case, to cast a bad or evil spell. For example, in Sleeping Beauty, the bad witch cursed Aurora to die when she pricks her finger. In this text, cursed is an adjective, as in Sleeping Beauty’s kingdom was cursed for 100 years. (Back to the text)

Merry-go-round: the image below shows a merry-go-round. (Back to the text)

Spiral around: A spiral is a shape made up of curves, each one above or wider than the one before. The image below shows a spiral staircase.

To spiral means to move in the shape of a spiral. (Back to the text)

Brink: the point where a new or different situation is about to begin. Some examples: “Extreme stress had driven him to the brink of a nervous breakdown.” “Scientists are on the brink of a major new discovery.” (Back to the text)

For instance: another way to say “for example”. (Back to the text)

Huzzah: an old expression, similar to “hurray.” It’s often used for humour or sarcasm. (Back to the text)

Grasp: understanding. For example: “He has a good grasp of the issues.” (Back to the text)(Back to the text)

Stick to something: to continue with a subject, activity, or plan without changing. For example: “Would you stick to the point, please?” (Back to the text)

Unequivocally: expressed very clearly, with no doubt. For example, “He said the allegations against him were ‘absolutely and unequivocally’ untrue.” (Back to the text)

Backbone: the most important part of something, providing support for everything else. For example: “Farming is the backbone of the country’s economy.” (Back to the text)

Slew: a large number of. Usually used with negative things. For example: “Savino has been charged with three murders as well as a whole slew of other crimes.” (Back to the text)

Match up: If you match one thing up with another thing, it means you put two things together that go well together. (Back to the text)

You’ve got: This technically means “you have,” but it’s used to tell someone a list of things. For example, if you’re showing a new student around university, you could tell him/her, “here you’ve got the student office, then the bathrooms are over there…”. Or, if you’re telling someone the hierarchy in a company, you could say, “you’ve got the manager, then right under him the three supervisors, and underneath the supervisors, 5 senior assistants, then all the sales assistants.” (Back to the text)

False friends: False friends drive many ESL learners crazy! They are two words, in two different languages, that look very similar to each other, but mean very different things and are therefore not equivalent. For example, “carpeta” in Spanish means folder (where you store files or papers), and in English “carpet” is a large piece of fabric that you have on the floor in your house. They look very similar but they are not the same thing, and so they can cause a lot of confusion if people assume that they are the same thing. (Back to the text)

Play on words: a humorous use of a word with more than one meaning or that sounds like another word. For example: “The name of the shop – ‘Strata Various’ – is a play on words, because it sounds like Stradivarius, the famous violin maker.” (Back to the text)

In a nutshell: using as few words as possible. People often say this to summarize something. (Back to the text)

Go into detail: to describe something in a lot of detail. Often used with the word “detail” but you can also use it with other objects such as “question” or “topic”. For example: “I won’t go into detail over the phone, but I’ve been having a few health problems recently.” “That’s a good question, but I don’t want to go into it now.” (Back to the text)

Rant: this is both a verb and a noun, meaning the same thing. The verb means to speak or write in a loud, uncontrolled, or angry way, often saying confused or silly things. (Back to the text)

Get back to work: to start working again after a pause or interruption. Basically, you were working, and then you were interrupted or you paused, and then you get back to work (you continue working again). (Back to the text)

Mush: any unpleasant thick soft substance, such as food that has been cooked for too long. (Back to the text)


Want to start using these words and make sure you don’t forget them? Try this exercise! Think about these questions (discuss them with someone) or write down your answers, using the word or expression in your discussion or answer.

  • What is a decision that you agonized over?
  • When you are buying a new phone / book / item of clothing, do you scrutinize it in the store to check if it’s brand new and that it doesn’t have any flaws or scratches?
  • Have you ever met anybody who believed he/she was cursed? Do you ever feel like the weather is cursed in your city?
  • Have you ever been on a merry-go-round? Do you like them?
  • Are you or is anybody you now on the brink of a promotion? How about a great discovery?
  • What kinds of dishes do you know how to cook? Give a few examples using “for instance.”
  • When you were in school, did you always have a good grasp of what the teachers taught in class?
  • When you make a decision, do you always stick to it? How often do you change your mind? Can you think of a time when you wanted to change something, but you decided to stick to it instead? (wanting to change your studies, quit your job, or give up on learning a new skill, etc…)
  • What do you think is the backbone of a happy marriage?
  • Describe the company you work at. Give a very short explanation by starting with “in a nutshell.”
  • When you tell a friend about your day or a vacation you went on, do you go into a lot of detail? Do you know anybody who goes into too much detail when talking about his/her life?
  • What’s something you could rant about? (something that upsets you and that you could talk about for a long time)
  • When you get distracted from working or studying, how long does it take you to get back to work?
  • Do you live in a city where it snows in the winter and then rains in the spring so the snow turns into mush?

Feel free to try writing some more sentences, or a text, of your own to practice some more.

Thank you for reading! These ESL notes, links and exercises each take several hours to make, so if you found this useful, the kindest thing you can do is to like the post, leave a comment, or share with anyone who needs it. Have questions about any other words? Leave a comment and I’ll be happy to reply! 🙂

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