Translators, the Detectives

This article was originally published in The NAJIT Observer, September 2013.

– by Gio Lester ©2013 –

I teach the introductory module on legal translation for a Brazilian translation, interpreting and language school. It’s an online course and my students are spread all over the world: Estonia, Belgium, the US, Brazil, Ireland, England, Puerto Rico, Sweden, etc.

My students are always surprised when I tell them their main job description now is “Detective.” I actually mean researcher, but the word detective is more intriguing and exciting. My jobSearch engines is to get them excited.

We explore online searches – university sites, law firms, dictionaries and specialized texts, etc., and also make use of personal resources including family members and friends, colleagues, government agencies, professionals, etc.; in short, anything or anyone that we can reach and may lead us in the right direction. I tell them about the many times I have contacted government agencies, universities and manufacturers here in the US, and the one time I had to call a Taoist Center in Brazil to ask about the translation of a passage in the I Ching.

I use Professor Robert Harris’s ( approach to evaluate material sourced from internet searches: “The CARS Checklist (Credibility, Accuracy, Reasonableness, Support) is designed for ease of learning and use. Few sources will meet every criterion in the list, and even those that do may not possess the highest level of quality possible. But if you learn to use the criteria in this list, you will be much more likely to separate the high quality information from the poor quality information.” (

Summary of The CARS Checklist for Research Source Evaluation


Trustworthy source, author’s credentials, evidence of quality control, known or respected authority, organizational support. Goal: an authoritative source, a source that supplies some good evidence that allows you to trust it.


Up-to-date, factual, detailed, exact, comprehensive, audience and purpose reflect intentions of completeness and accuracy. Goal: a source that is correct today (not yesterday), a source that gives the whole truth.


Fair, balanced, objective, reasoned, no conflict of interest, absence of fallacies or slanted tone. Goal: a source that engages the subject thoughtfully and reasonably, concerned with the truth.


Listed sources, contact information, available corroboration, claims supported, documentation supplied. Goal: a source that provides convincing evidence for the claims made, a source you can triangulate (find at least two other sources that support it).


An update: The Journal of Human Resources Management and Labor Studies sent us a contribution: – I especially recommend item 10. for evaluating sources.

Translating the phrase Board of Regents in a university diploma proved especially challenging, and the CARS checklist was a valuable tool. My students could not resist the temptation to jot down Conselho de Regentes. Well, you can definitely find that translation online, but only on sites outside of Brazil (Credibility), and as a translation of the English phrase (Accuracy). I did not find it as an original Portuguese phrase in the same context (Support). The word regent in Portuguese applies to a maestro, teaching head of university department, and other applications that were not pertinent. They had to go to the university’s website and find out the job description for the Regents (Reasonableness), find their counterpart in the Brazilian administrative system within our universities and use a native term that would fulfill the blank, while not all encompassing: Conselho Universitário.

Exploring the Department of Motor Vehicles of Florida proved to be more interesting. We were translating a driver’s license and the restriction, type and class codes are expressed in letters only. The class thought copying those codes was all that it took. I asked them to find the meaning of each one of those codes, and they gladly became detectives once again. They really enjoyed learning about the differences between the Brazilian and American documents, how the DMV website was organized and all the services it offered.

Once that challenge was conquered, there came another: teaching my students to write. They were so concerned with getting the meaning straight that they forgot all about conveying the message correctly in the target language. They were writing for themselves, based on their own understanding of the intended message, without regard for their audience. As a result, sentences were truncated with parts of speech missing or improper punctuation, i.e. they were writing still in the source language using target language words, a very common occurrence among new translators. To give you a taste of what I mean, a good example is “Ontem à noite fomos ao cinema,” which gets translated to “Yesterday evening we went to the movies,” but what we hear and read is “We went to the movies last night.”

So, now that my detectives are well trained, I am working on developing writers. I am really enjoying the challenges and the new adventure of teaching online.

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