What If You Don’t Understand Something in the CIOL Diploma in Translation Exam?

Last updated Jan 22, 2024
By Gwenydd Jones

The IoLET Diploma in Translation is a post-graduate diploma. Only paper reference sources are allowed in the exam. No Internet. So, one of the biggest concerns among trainees on my DipTrans preparation course is what to do if they don’t understand something. This article will explore strategies.

What paper resources should I take into the exam?

Candidates are allowed to take in any paper resources they like. Take the obvious, like up-to-date dictionaries. Consider other reference books, like thesauruses and encyclopaedias. You can also create glossaries and take in notes of all kinds. For instance, trainees on my course often struggle to remember how to punctuate bullet points. I suggest they print out the relevant page of the EU style guide and take that in with them. When I sat the DipTrans most people took in a suitcase full of resources.

Despite all this information, there will probably still be phrases or words that you can’t find. It takes only one serious error to fail the CIOL Diploma in Translation. This means not understanding something is extremely stressful for the candidate.

Here are some strategies we recommend to trainees on our advanced translation course. The course includes preparation to sit the CIOL Diploma in Translation exam.

1. Get your translation down in draft

Sometimes, a term that is difficult to understand when you start translating becomes self-evident by the end. When doing the first draft, flag up whatever you don’t understand and leave it in Spanish. Skip over it and get the end of your draft. This is much faster than trying to look it up. Then, revisit the problem term as you move into the checking phase. It’s possible that further information has come to light that can help you understand.

Hopefully, you’ll be able to resolve some problems in this way. But what happens if you still aren’t sure?

Check out these strategies for what to do if you don’t understand something in the #DipTrans #translation exam. Click To Tweet

2. Identify the exact problem

I notice that when translators don’t understand something, it can throw them off their game for the entire sentence. This seems crazy when it’s only one term that’s actually causing the problem. This one problem phrase seems to blind them to everything else. They make mistakes they normally wouldn’t make in other parts of the sentence and mess up the whole translation.

One piece of advice I give everybody who trains with me is to try to identify exactly what it is in the sentence that is causing them the problem. Perhaps they’ll never figure out what that term or phrase means. But by cordoning it off, they can at least make sure they get the rest of the sentence right.

3. Check different possibilities

The texts used in the IoLET Diploma in Translation are high quality. If you’re reading nonsense, then look again. You’re probably missing something.

Ask yourself some questions. Is it a single term or a problem with how the syntax is linked together? Is the problem a noun? In that case, you could replace it with “X” and still get the rest of the sentence right. If it’s a set adverbial phrase, then you may be able to get away with guessing at the meaning based on the context. If it’s a pronoun, then look again, as you’re probably connecting it to the wrong noun. Are you misreading which noun an adjective modifies? Have you confused a verb tense? Could a different noun or a noun phrase be the subject of the verb? The answer will be there somewhere.

Could there be a mistake in the exam paper?

There is a possibility that the exam paper could contain a mistake. But it doesn’t normally happen. From what I’ve observed, it’s much more likely that you’re missing something. I remember one trainee getting in mess with “de no haber sido por” (if it hadn’t been for). He forgot to consider that it could be a set phrase and assumed it was an error. Try to think from as many different angles as you can to help you figure out what’s going on.

I’ve read examiner reports where candidates were penalised for paraphrasing.

4. Make sure what you write makes sense

Translators on my course sometimes get frustrated with the text because they can’t understand it. They end up producing literal or nonsense translations that can’t be the correct solution. Perhaps this is the result of panicking under the time pressure. It isn’t as if you can go back another day or go outside for some fresh air to clear your head.

If you write a nonsense sentence, then that will probably be enough for you to fail. Ask yourself, would any native English writer produce this from scratch? If the answer is no, then you’d better edit it.

5. Paraphrase to yourself in your head

To make sure you’re clear on what the writer means, step back from the text and imagine you’re explaining it to someone, i.e. paraphrasing. Your translation must be accurate and not a paraphrase of the original text. But, doing this can help you put your finger on the English equivalent you need.

Warning: I’ve read examiner reports where candidates were penalised for paraphrasing instead of translating. Once you’re clear on what the writer means, make sure you choose a translation that accurately conveys the meaning of the Spanish words.

6. Get into the right ballpark

This technique works well on the more technical papers. Say you know that you’re talking about a tool, but you can’t figure out exactly what that tool is called in English. Perhaps you know it’s some type of drilling tool. In that case, drill component might be enough to get through the exam.

From what I’ve been able to observe by reading examiner reports, the examiners don’t necessarily penalise the most technical language for not being spot on. But the translator can’t mislead the reader. So, if you say that this drilling tool is a tool, then you’re not wrong, even though you could be much more accurate. That’s better than saying that a drilling tool is a building component, which would be wrong.  

Doing this isn’t ideal, but if desperate times call for desperate measures, it may not be a disaster. This is particularly true if the term appears just once and is not key to the article as a whole.

7. Can you use a translator’s note?

This is the million-dollar question. The instructions on using translator’s notes in the handbook seem straight forward. They say that translator’s notes should be used only as we would use them in a professional context. They “may be used to indicate an ambiguity in the text that cannot be clarified under examination conditions”. But “should be addressed to the target reader and not to the examiner”. Other descriptions of translator’s notes in the handbook are fitting to what I would consider footnotes. Read the IoLET Diploma in Translation handbook for yourself.

I’m a professional translator and I use translator’s notes in the emails I send to my clients, to tell them if I have any doubts. My client is never the target reader. They’re an agency, end client or publisher. As a result of this, I find it difficult to understand what the handbook means.

It takes only one serious error to fail the CIOL Diploma in Translation.

If you fail one of the papers of the IoLET Diploma in Translation, you can pay to have a remark and get specific feedback. Past trainees on my course have kindly shared these documents with me. I’ve seen an instance where the examiner penalised the translator for using translator’s notes to say they couldn’t clarify the meaning of a term. That wasn’t the reason she failed, but they specifically mentioned it. In my own case, I used translator’s notes on one of the papers, to explain that I didn’t have access to a document to clarify a doubt. I passed that paper, so wasn’t penalised for the notes. For now, I can only conclude that it depends on the examiner.

If you have any information to add about translator’s notes in the DipTrans exam, please comment on this article. For now, the best advice I can give is to avoid using them unless you have no other option, since they may be penalised.

Doing the IoLET #DipTrans exam? Read these strategies to help you if you don’t understand something. #translation Click To Tweet

8. Making an educated guess

Guessing can’t really be called an exam strategy, but leaving a gap or nonsense on the exam paper will definitely get you a fail. If there is nothing else for it, then make your best guess. This guess should be made near the end of the exam when you have the maximum possible knowledge of the text. It should be based on the context and what the writer may logically have written. It should make perfect sense, so the reader won’t notice your presence in the text. Make it as general as possible, to give yourself a greater chance of being somewhere near.

Do our DipTrans Preparatory Course!

I hope this article has equipped you with different tools that you can use when you sit the CIOL Diploma in Translation. If you’re preparing to sit the DipTrans in the Spanish-to-English combination, please consider preparing with us on our Advanced Spanish-to-English translation course with DipTrans preparation. You’ll get completely personalised feedback and support. There’s a free level test if you need one!

Written by Gwenydd Jones

Gwenydd Jones is a Spanish- and French-to-English translator, an SEO blogger and a course creator. She is the founder of The Translator's Studio and the lead teacher on its courses. Connect with Gwenydd on LinkedIn or contact her through this website.

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