Translators, the Detectives

This is a republishing with an update. Enjoy.

– 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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16 thoughts on “Translators, the Detectives”

  1. Kathleen says:

    Thanks so much for the CARS checklist, Gio. So helpful! I’ve always sort of followed this advice on an informal way, but this really helps to organize my search methods.

    1. Gio Lester says:

      Glad you like it, Kathleen. I have been using it for decades, and as we get swamped by Big Data, this has kept me focused during my searches.

      — Gio

  2. Laura Cahue says:

    I love this post! Thanks for writing it.

    1. Gio Lester says:

      Thank you, Laura. Learning that dictionaries do not have all the answers was a surprise for them, and I am glad I could make it fun.

  3. Sawsan abugosseisa says:

    Thank you Cathleen for sharing. I can fully relate to your experience as I have been there myself to the extent that I felt you were telling my story. I started interpreting for an organization that contract with community interpreters who received training at one of the well known programs. The organization believed that they were getting the best interpreting practices up and till I showed up. I offered to give free informational sessions to those interpreters but to no avail. I was able though to speak at a training sessions offered by the organization for its social workers and case managers about how to use and what to expect form a well trained interpreter. I do feel that informing the consumer of our trade about the proper interpreting practices is just as important and hopefully would encourage interpreters to perform up to the standard desired.

    1. Gio Lester says:


      I have forwarded your comment to Kathleen. It is always encouraging to see professionals speaking up.

      — Gio

  4. Clifford S. Fishman says:


    I’m a law professor and sort of “honorary” member of NAJIT; one of my specialties is the use of non-English recordings and transcripts in evidence. my compliments on a fine column, which, with your permission, I would l ike to cite in upcoming supplements to my evidence and electronic surveillance treatises.


  5. Gio Lester says:

    Hi Cliff,

    Thank you for your comments. It will be an honor. And I am at your disposal should you need anything else.

  6. constance marina says:

    I really enjoyed your post, Gio. In interpretation as well as translation, our goal should be that of naturalness, not just what is said (meaning) but how it is said (form) in the target language. A worthy goal and one not easily nor always reached!

    1. Gio Lester says:

      I am glad you enjoyed it, Constance. And you are right: not always reached. But we won’t give up, will we?

  7. Catalina Natalini says:

    Dear Gio,

    Thanks for sharing this resource. I also teach a course in Legal Translation at La Salle University, and I spent a lot of time teaching my students to use less the dictionaries and to research and translate legal documents in terms of functional equivalence.

    This is a great resource!


    1. Gio Lester says:

      It makes things so much easier to understand, doesn’t it? When function takes the place of words and THEN we select the right words to convey the message it works better.

      Glad we corroborate each other’s approaches. Good teaching!

  8. Miriam Leniz says:

    Dear Gio & Colleagues, Professor Gio’s point regarding ‘detective’ work is right on the mark. Whether a translator or interpreter u’ll find that thorough research skills will make u into a better T/I. Decades ago when I began my studies (am among the 1st group in NJ to become certified) the course of study was grueling but extremely effective. One of my extraordinary professors was Dr. Nancy Lopez-Balboa who, likewise, likened the research skill set to detective work. Translation studies are monumentally necessary to both the translator & interpreter. After 30+ yrs in this line of work, I can say, I wouldn’t trade it for anything; & knowing how to research a subject or term has been useful throughout my life. Thanx!

    1. Gio Lester says:

      Hello, Miriam,

      Every skill we learn can be adapted to different aspect of life. I remember helping my daughter find a recipe for a favorite dessert, for example, and selecting the p-e-r-f-e-c-t one based on its provenance.

      Your professor was right. And, like you, I love my work and would not trade it for anything else!

      Thank you!

  9. click says:

    thanks for your valuable post it helped me a lot

  10. Bruna Marchi says:

    Well done, Gio!
    CARS was totally new for me, but it seems to be a really practical way of how we should do proper research.
    Thank you.

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