Making or Breaking a Translation

TranslationTranslating is a lot like walking a tightrope. When you finally find your balance, you can take a few steady steps in the right direction. Still, you always have to stay focused and make sure not to fall. You can either do really well or fail miserably.

Our worldwide network of translators consists of linguists who have passed the ‘Textcase test’. This test consists of a short text that can be translated in an infinite amount of ways. It’s a creative text with multiple layers and pitfalls. I’ve read more than a hundred English-Dutch translations and every single one is unique.

(Read this article in Dutch here and in German here)

What makes for a good translation? In this article, I will go into the three main identifiable aspects, in order of importance: accuracy, readability and style.

1. A translation must be accurate. This means that the message needs to be conveyed fully, without any omissions or additions or changes to the meaning. In order to do so, a translator must have a profound understanding of the cultures of both the source language and the target language.

Examples of challenges:

– Cultural subtleties, such as slang, dialects, stereotypes and figurative speech. We use language as a means to manipulate and work with our environment and circumstances. Since both the environment and the people are different in every region, language has borders.

Translator Antony Shugaar described this issue beautifully in The New York Times Opinionator last week: “People talk about untranslatable words, but in a way, there’s no such thing. It may take three words, or an entire sentence, or even an interpolated paragraph, but any word can be translated. Short of swelling a book into an encyclopedia, however, there is no way of dealing with the larger problem: untranslatable worlds.”

– Items or products that do not exist in another country. A Dutch novel once had a murder scene involving an unusual murder weapon: an apple corer (a device to remove an apple’s core). The Finnish translator got stuck, because this device does not exist in Finland. After consulting the author, the translator added an extra fragment to the previous chapter introducing the Finnish reader to the device.

– Adjectives. Finding the right equivalent for adjectives is a challenge. How people associate adjectives with emotions differs greatly in different countries. It’s like reading the word green and then picking a particular shade of green. Not everyone would pick the same shade.

We try to solve these problems by translating with the reader in mind and by being pragmatic. It can be necessary to divert from the source text simply because a ‘straight up’ translation wouldn’t make sense to a reader in another country. At the same time, however, we realize all too well that people travel nowadays: most know a lot about other cultures. We try not to underestimate the reader.

2. The translation needs to be well written. A translator must be a native speaker and a wordsmith. We strive to deliver translations with correct spelling, new sentence structures and elegant phrasing, to the extent that readers don’t notice that they are reading a translation.

Challenges:

– A poor source text. It’s like a bad foundation. Every translator gets frustrated – and a bit sad – when a source text is vague, full of typos and other errors, because it’s impossible to deliver a great text.

– Seeing the text with ‘fresh’ eyes. Every translator needs at least one good editor to make sure the text reads smoothly so readers won’t notice they are reading a translation.

3. The author’s style needs to be preserved. An intelligent translation conveys a style that is similar to the style of the source text. It’s about understanding the author’s purpose. This includes comma placement, diction and much more. It’s highly intuitive.

Challenges:

– Identifying which parts of the text are important and which ones are less important. A translator needs to identify the intentions of the writer and stay close to the source text in some regards, but also allow himself some poetic license elsewhere to achieve the best result.

– Defending decisions. When an editor revises the translation, he or she often changes things that shouldn’t be changed. It can take a long time for a translator to explain why certain decisions were made; defending these choices can be exhausting, but part of the job.

What do you consider important in a translation? If you are a translator, which parts of your job are most challenging to you? Which translations annoyed or impressed you? Which translations made you laugh? Let us know!

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