What Makes a Good Translation?

A Spanish “translation” that appeared on gas pumps throughout Indiana in 2001

I am often approached by people who speak another language who are looking for work. I will ask if they translate or interpret, or both. This inevitably leads to the question, what’s the difference? As I have discussed in a previous post, there is a difference. However, the fact that they do not even know that tells me a lot so I try to steer them toward resources on getting started as a translator. Many people assume that any bilingual person can do a good translation. Therefore, often a very complicated, well-written document ends up in the hands of someone with absolutely no translation experience. So what all goes into the process of translating, and how you do judge a good translation from a bad one?

It is often said that translation is an art, and I agree. Think about it for a second. If I were asked to draw a picture of someone, I could certainly produce an image resembling a human being that anyone would recognize as such, but could that compare to the naturalness and fine detail of what a true artist could do? Could I call myself an artist? Translation can be viewed in the same way. It is an intricate and often subjective process that goes far beyond a simplistic word-for-word exchange. A good translation needs to carry the meaning and the tone of the original text, while still remaining culturally sensitive and appropriate to the target audience. Poor translations abound and it is such translations that people tend to remember. There is nothing funny about a bad translation if it negatively affects your company image or product. No one wants to be the butt of a bad joke because a translation has failed to hit its mark. The image above is just such an example. It is a translation that appeared about ten years ago here in Indiana for the “Don’t Pump and Run” campaign. I thought they had all been removed long gone until I recently saw one while filling my tank. This gem of a translation blooper wasn’t done by a computer, but by someone who honestly felt that he/she had the skills to do the translation. For those of you who speak Spanish, you will get a real kick out of it. For those of you who do not, it’s funny to native speakers because it’s a literal and nonsensical of the English version. It is also contains invented words, accent marks written as apostrophes and misspellings, including when a misspelling of the English word petroleum. How this was ever approved and posted at thousands of gas stations statewide is a mystery to me.

So what are the qualities that go into making a “good” translation? It must meet several criteria in order to be considered “good.” The first criterion is rather obvious—it has to be accurate. Examples of where this often fails are mistranslations, missing sentences and bad grammar. This point accentuates the need to use translators with a thorough knowledge of both languages, not merely two years of a high school language. Mistranslations and missing words or sentences can have devastating consequences. Additionally, if a translation is fraught with bad grammar or spelling errors, the reader tends to lose confidence in not only the document, but also the company that produced it.

Clarity is another important factor. A translation has to be easily comprehensible and well written, regardless of how poor the original document may be. Good translations commonly read much better than do the originals. Many writers tend to write in rather long and complicated sentences; this is especially true in legal documents. However, a translation should strive to present all the information and nuance of the source text in a clear and uncluttered fashion whenever possible

Naturalness of the translation is the key factor in helping to prevent a translation from sounding like one. Typically, or at least at my company, after a translation has been proofread for accuracy and completeness, an editor will go through the document and make sure that it reads smoothly and sounds as if it were originally written in the target language.

An easily overlooked component of a good translation is mirroring the mood of the author. In general texts, there may not be a definitive tone, but in editorial and literary documents there always is a clear attitude of the author. For a translation to convey the same feeling to the reader, it must use words and expressions which can transmit a similar spirit. Failure to express this accurately can easily mislead the reader as to the writer’s true feelings and attitudes.

Next, a translation needs to be culturally appropriate for the target audience. References to religious figures, sports or country–specific items may confuse or offend the reader. Such references either need to be excluded in the source document before translation begins, or be culturally readapted into the target language.

Lastly, the audience needs to be taken into consideration. Sometimes this is a broad group of people, but more often, it is a narrow, targeted audience. A text written for a group of scientists needs to be translated at a much higher reading level than would consent forms for newly arrived immigrants. Moreover, if a document is destined for a certain country, it is usually best that the translation be performed by a native translator of that country to ensure that only terms and expressions of that country are used. Metric conversions and spelling changes may need to be made to ensure that the translation is acceptable in the given country. This is just a very brief look at the basics of what goes into a good translation. If you have questions, please let me know.

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What does a translator do?

When I tell people  I’m a translator, most really don’t seem to know what that means or what I do. The first question is usually, how many languages do you speak? While many translators do work in more than one language pair, this is by no means a requirement. Some people assume that I travel all the time, which is sadly not the case. First, let me start by defining some key terminology in the translation industry before I get into what a translator does. The terms translator and interpreter are often used interchangeably, but they are two distinct professions requiring very different skill sets. A translator deals with written text and an interpreter deals with the spoken word. I’ll discuss interpreters in another post. Source language is the language from which a document is translated and target language is the language into which a document is translated. A working language is the one that a person knows well enough to work in at a professional level.

The translation process goes well beyond the simple replacement of a word in one language into another. A translator not only needs to have a thorough understanding of the source language text and subject matter, but also the ability to convey (translate) the meaning, mood and style of the author accurately, naturally and completely into the target language. Merely being bilingual does not qualify a person to translate any more than being able to write makes one a poet. Translators must have excellent grammar and writing skills to produce translations that don’t sound like translations. As a general rule, translators translate from their working language(s) into their native language. There are some exceptions, such as second-generation speakers who have grown up with essentially two native languages, though even in these cases, one language is tends to be more dominant.

The work environment for translators varies by country. Here in the U.S., many companies and government entities do staff in-house translators, providing the stability of a 9-5 job without the need to find new clients on a regular basis. Nonetheless, most translators work as freelancers. This allows them quite a bit of flexibility as they aren’t tethered to any one location and can literally work anywhere in the world. Since they are usually paid by the word and rely on work from different sources, speed and quality are vital to their livelihood. That’s why even though most translators are generalists, they usually specialize in one or more fields. It’s much easier to translate a subject that you are familiar with than to struggle for hours with one that you don’t even understand well in your own language. Most translation agencies seek out specialized translators for subject-specific projects since the quality is almost always better than a generalist’s translation of the same material.

Technology has completely changed the translation profession. Nowadays all translations are done on a computer, usually with the assistance of on-line dictionaries and glossaries. Most translators also use translation memory and terminology management software. This is not computer-generated translation, but rather specialized software that archives a translator’s own work for use within a large document or for future updates of the same or similar documents. The software also enables translators and translation companies to share translation memories, which are files containing previous translations and accepted terminology, that the software uses to help maintain consistency among different translators over time. Typically when a translation agency sends a freelance translator a document to translate, the request is accompanied by a translation memory. Before delivering the translation, it should be thoroughly reviewed and edited for technical accuracy and correct grammar.

This is just a brief glimpse into the profession I love. Translators are the unseen individuals responsible for helping the world to communicate every day. You undoubtedly read their work all the time. When it’s done well, you don’t even notice.