What is a Translation?

A turn-of-the-century Russian translator said: “Translation is like a woman, if she is beautiful, she is not faithful; if she is faithful, she is not beautiful.” Setting aside for the moment the blatant sexism in this quote, we can see one of the core challenges in translation. Translators must strike a balance between fidelity to the source text and readability in the target language. We have all seen material that is so obviously translated as to sound awkward in our native languages, and in some cases as to bear enough hallmarks of the source language as to be readily identifiable as coming from it. The best translation is the one that no one recognizes as a translation. In other words, the document should read as though it were written in the target language originally. This implies, by extension, that the translator’s effort is transparent, and the translator ends up being invisible. In other words, you do your best work when no one realizes you have done anything. Achieving this level of translation is challenging, to say the least. The trick is to let your clients decidewhat they want. Since they have to live with the results of your work, let them choose. Patiently explain to them the options they have, how long each might take, and how much each possible version will cost. They’ll decide if they want a literal, if unreadable, translation or if they want a Pulitzer Prize-winning text.

If your client can’t decide, doesn’t know, or won’t tell you, then strike a balance. This is easier with some languages and some subject areas than others. Although most people think that technical material is easiest for stylistic considerations, consider this. Academic style varies from nation to nation. For instance, in English, we generally present our thesis, then give the evidence, develop the argument, and then reach the conclusion. However, in Japanese, we usually present a vague thesis, give the evidence slowly with lots of discussion, and then reach some tentative statement about the thesis in the form of a conclusion. Other differences exist among other language pairs. Somehow you have to deal with these differences.

Another potential pitfall with technical translation is that often the client cannot let you see or touch the object in question. If you are translating a computer system manual, it’s very helpful to see and even work a little with the system. The same holds for a video game, home audio component, or for that matter a scanning electron microscope, which I realize is hardly something you want in your home, but I have translated manuals and technical specifications for such technology. Sometimes seeing the product in question is not possible, the system or software may still be in development. You might have to create terminology for the system, only to find that the client wants something else. You then have to go back and change everything.

The most difficult problem is when you encounter something in one language that doesn’t exist in the other. Financial instruments, legal procedures, and government and business structures vary from nation to nation and culture to culture. Although standard glossaries exist for the most commonplace of these, in other words those that you might hear about on Headline News, translators are usually dealing with new or specialized material and information, so you might be stuck having to christen something on your own, or leave it in the A language and put in a translator’s note explaining what the term means.