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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Confessions of a Language Addict

My name is Bill and I’m a language addict. More precisely, I’m a recovering addict. Since the age of 12, I’ve studied dozens of languages to varying degrees of proficiency, amassing a formidable collection of several hundred languages books spanning over forty languages. My interest in a given language would start out strong and remain so for several weeks, or months, only to wane or vanish altogether once I heard someone speaking another language. I’d get the feeling that I was missing out on something by not studying that language. Some of these languages included Greek, Chinese, Japanese, Swedish, Finnish, Polish, Czech and so forth. I might spend ten minutes studying German grammar, followed by a half hour of Czech verbs. I managed to continue this erratic learning style while still studying my main languages in high school and college, which were and still are Spanish, French and Russian.

Addiction is generally defined as continuing a behavior that has negative consequences. Few would see any negative consequences from studying too many languages. However, in my case I had thoughts of becoming a United Nations interpreter, considered to be the best in the world. Their job requires an absolute command of at least three of the UN’s official languages, which are English Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese and Arabic. My haphazard study plan of jumping in and out of different languages was leaving me as a jack of all trades and master of none. I had become content with my language skills once I mastered most of the grammar and could carry on full conversations, regardless of how basic they might be. Such skills, though perfect for tour guides and waiters, were nowhere close to the near-native levels I would need for any serious work. I found that I was unable to easily read novels in my main languages, or follow movies and conversations of native speakers. After studying Russian in the former Soviet Union in the 1991, I came back with a deeper appreciation of the joys and practical value of speaking a language well. I began to focus much more heavily on my primary languages, almost to the point of abandoning the study of my minor languages for several years. In 1994, I began to work as a translator and was able to hone my major language skills much more effectively. A job offer in the late 90s as a Spanish/Portuguese translator required me to add Portuguese, a language I had studied for three years, to my list of working languages. This gave me a valid excuse to study another language for work. Now I struggle with the desire to add yet another working language while trying to keep my main languages at very high levels.

I now regard my addiction as more of a passion for language learning. Since I now have nearly twenty years’ experience as a translator, there are not the same downside risks to learning other languages as there were when I still hadn’t perfected my core ones. In the last five years I’ve once again begun dusting off some of those languages I first started studying many years ago. Nonetheless, I still must restrain myself from taking on too many languages since I long ago discovered that it’s a lot more fun, and enormously more profitable, to know a few languages very well than many poorly.