This article, dedicated to discussing the quality policy that I adopt in my professional translation work, is a very long one, as I realise that quality in translation is always invoked (for obvious reasons), but it can be very hard to discuss it clearly (especially without a pen and paper, and without the availability of “other things”, if you ask me). And let’s not forget that, when someone reads some text in their mother tongue only to find that it has the poor translation factor, they are frequently at a loss to suggest what might have been meant – even if they had the original to hand, people request translations precisely because they can’t understand something that is written in another language!
One thing that everyone does agree on is that discussion of the “quality” of translated material is an extremely common occurrence – I would agree that even people who are not very well educated, when reading something that is a translation into their own language of something, can be quick to find something that “just isn’t correct” / “just doesn’t work”, without really trying. In a world where speaking more than one language is accepted as very important to many people’s life’s prospects – indeed, more businesses than ever are currently asking for translations of their material so that they may be able to find customers abroad – no-one should forget that people are quick to respond to bad translation all the time; indeed, people are quick to point out things as “literal translation” (or what they consider to be “literal translation”) all the time, and, depending on the circumstances, frown upon it. Such people, if they know that something is a translation of something else, will not hide their willingness to criticise the words that are used with a certain level of passion and pride, whether or not they would know how to define such a choice that they make, such as I just did in this sentence. While no French person, no matter how stupid, would write “Je veux à sortir école” expecting it to pass for a valid translation of the English sentence “I want to leave school”, it can be hard, even for linguistic professionals, to provide a full account of the full range of meanings attributed to “literal” or “inaccurate” translation.
So how would I describe “poor translation” in my own words? Well, as already implied above, it is quite a wide-reaching topic. (I have tried to keep this bit as brief as possible without over-generalising.) Even today I sometimes read bad translations that have been referenced as such, just for fun – even professional translation agencies include lists of bad translations on their websites as something of an educational / humour element – and I have to say that I personally do not always regard mere incorrectly spelled words in translated material as justification for calling that material a “bad translation”, even though that label may well be valid. In the book “Lost In Translation” (Charlie Croker), there’s one entry referring to a “restaurant and bra” advertised in China, but I only call that a “bad translation” to a certain extent, because no native English speaker needs to think to realise that it should have been “restaurant and bar.” However, there are times when incorrectly spelled words – often written as the correct spelling of a completely different word (ever seen “your” written when it should have been written as the abbreviation of “you are”?) – genuinely do impede understanding. A notice on a soup terrine in a German cash-and-carry store once said, “Pie Soup” – I think they meant “pea soup”, but I was genuinely unable to come up with this idea the first time I read this, and long after that.
In other cases, what qualifies bad translations as such is awkward wording / sentence structure. I’ve read some bad English translations which, while they use proper English words throughout, are blatant bad translations because they fail to adhere to some very fundamental rules of English. For example, this is a subtitle quote taken from a Western film shown in Japan (Casablanca). Instead of “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine”, I read, “In all towns of the all worlds of all gin, her it connects to my ones which you walk.” Other bad translations are written in perfectly valid English but still conspicuously less than coherent as a result of poor word choice; like the sign that said, “Please don’t surpass the cautionary driftwood while having the aquatic visiting.” Confusing? Perhaps establishing the context / circumstances will help to clarify things. The source where I read about this sign says that it was seen in the “Yudu scenic spot in China”, which has let me conclude that it is supposed to be understood as referring to wooden railings positioned between visitors of the park and a body of water located in the park (hence the “aquatic” bit) and when the visitors visit this body of water these wooden railings are there to prevent people from getting too close to it, for safety reasons (hence the “cautionary” bit).
I fully believe that I should also mention that, with some bad translations, unwise word selection was responsible for the content not only failing to enable the intended readership to understand what was meant, but it also veritably suggested something else entirely; something which tends only to make it harder to understand what was meant. And I am aware that there are cases of this where the alternative thing suggested will instantly be taken as rude or offensive, or liable to cause embarrassment. The government in Seoul, South Korea, established a hotline for taxi passengers who encountered rudeness, and a sign in taxis which referred people to it listed it as the “Intercourse Discomfort Report Center.” I have seen bad translations where I have sympathised not only with the intended readership but also those who composed them. Like the English “Do Not Enter” sign written by a Japanese person, which stated, “Don’t get into this.” Another English sign written by someone who was Japanese was a road sign which said, “Stop. Drive sideways” – a sign which is to be recognised as a traffic diversion instrument, telling people, “This road is blocked; you cannot drive straight on at this point. Drive down the side road that you can see.”
Even the language used by native speakers (including educated ones) can “stand out” in ways that they did not intend. Consideration of things like slang language and swear words (and people who use them without realising their true implications) is just the tip of the iceberg. I could go on and on about the poor English of native English speakers who do not really speak the language; people who are prone to writing things like “your” when they mean to use the abbreviation of “you are”; or getting “there”, “their” and “they’re” confused; or indeed “I should / could / would of”. But what I’m really talking about here is things like unintentionally stupid-sounding headlines (like “Drunk Gets Nine Months In Violin Case”) or comments that comprise language that is sound in every respect (at least academically) but for an element of clumsiness (like the misuse of the word “literally”, as in the genuine Talksport statement, “Gazza will literally be going through cold turkey for the rest of his life”). The truth is that the topic of difficulties in communication based on faulty language is popular among many, many people. A man called Richard Benson even wrote a book of strange things that children have written: “Blackboard Blunders: spelling slip-ups and homework howlers”. On the back of the cover, he writes, “Children at their funniest when trying to be serious, and their earnest attempts at mastering the English language are a goldmine of unintentional humour. This book is packed with hysterical examples of silly spelling and wonky words, from the charming and ludicrous, and from the profound to the downright X-rated!” My favourite is probably: “‘You are under a rest and you will be remembered in custard for the night,’ said the policeman. He wasn’t expecting that!”
All that said, however, as a translator, with every project I undertake I am committed to pursuing a very stringent quality policy. All humour aside, this is why my commitment to a high level of literacy, analysis and quality in my translation work is absolute. It’s fair to claim that good translation work is a matter of “paying attention to more than what can be seen”. I cannot and will not allow for distractions when I am determined to produce an educated-sounding and lucid equivalent of the content of what I am to translate; all the more so when, like everyone else, I know I have my limits just like everyone else. I’m human. My knowledge and reasoning capacity do have their limits, and it is the same for everyone else. Translation agencies everywhere understand this, which is precisely why so many of them have a policy that submitted translation work be proofread by someone else (always a native speaker) before it is finally submitted to the client. And, in all candour, I speak in favour of the same.
So… what is my quality policy, exactly? It’s certainly not just a matter of correct spelling, and, as mentioned before, sometimes misspelled words are actually real words, except that they mean something else entirely. I just wouldn’t be adhering to this quality policy at all without a strong commitment to a properly close, vigilant and incisive inspection of the words in the sentences of the original material, even if they strike me as making sense and making appropriate points the first time I “read through” them, and even if they are notably less than what I would call long sentences. But that is just the beginning. I believe that anything less than a totally resolute analysis of what I write in my translation material is an unwise risk at best, and blatantly unprofessional at worst.
What I don’t do is translate “word for word”. Even when I do a translation task today I just might realise that I have picked out the wrong meaning of an individual word in the original document, one which means that the word I appropriate for it in the translated sentence means that that sentence fails to resemble the message in the original, and then I need to replace it. This is something that I always bear in mind when getting terminology right is important. If I agree that any specific word in the original “looks like terminology”, I make a note of it, just in case I eventually agree that I need to go back several sentences to change it to something else! Mind you, using the find and replace feature (CTRL + F) means that I can do this very quickly, even if a translated word that I have decided is incorrect appears several times in the translated version. But ultimately, this is why I’m prepared to take the time to do a final proofread of a project once the final words have been translated… and why so many translation agencies speak of the “four eyes” policy in connection with translation proofreading or editing work.
My usual approach is to look at and treat individual sentences in turn. I say “usual” approach because I do realise that sometimes it is best not to attempt to write the sentences of a translated product in such a way that the successive sentences in the translated product are congruent with those of the original, where structural elements may vary but the information content is not re-arranged. This might be a matter of excluding information content from one sentence in the translation and including it in another so that that information is no longer in the “corresponding sentence” in the original, or taking the information content of one sentence in the original and representing it in more than one sentence in the translation, or the other way round.
Unless I know I’ve picked up the correct information in a given sentence in the original without really trying, chances are that I willsegregate individual phrases (which may only be a couple of words), not least because I might be mistaken about which phrase a given word belongs to. This is accompanied by the identification of key words (like the main verb) and of the word types (noun, adjective etc.) of the words that most contribute to making my understanding of the text in the original what it is. I find that this is the best way to pick up the pieces if I have got it wrong first time round. Certain aspects of punctuation help (the comma in particular), but only to a certain extent. It’s not always there. (Then again, if there’s too much punctuation in a sentence, following it can be a very big chore!)
Translation is indeed an intellectual activity, and I will make it clear that I have categorised use of language as well as language itself (from an academic perspective: word types, tenses, declensions etc.). Sometimes people say things that are easy and straightforward to illustrate on a piece of paper (“I have a red car”, “The white horse was bigger than the brown one” etc.) – although one should consider that what is actually to be understood from saying simple-sounding statements like this may vary if individual words are deliberately given special emphasis (“I have a red car” vs. “I have a red car” vs. “I have a red car”) etc. Against this there are times when people say things that are harder to illustrate because they reflect concepts or attitudes which may well refer to things that those who receive the message may not be familiar with (example: “It is a fact that the implementation of these new measures would incur greater costs.”). It’s when translating concepts and attitudes in particular that I’m prepared to use my imagination in an attempt to put the message of the original across in a way that will be noticeably different at the end of the day, but always accurate.
While I do try to limit my use of machine translation tools (my own judgement always matters more than anything else!) I will state that I also divide language into “statements that I would always trust a machine translator with” and “statement that I would not always trust a machine translator with.” In the paragraph above, simple and plain statements like “my car is red” are ones that I would always trust a machine translator with, but anything “more complicated” than that requires a more prudent approach. After all, a machine translator won’t think for itself. Like I said before, some words do have different meanings – but they’re not always completely different. The French word livre can mean “book” or it can mean “pound sterling” (in this case, though, it depends on whether it’s un livre or une livre). But the German word Stelle can mean “place”, “job”, “office” or “authority” – to a native English speaker who doesn’t speak German it would seem that these four words have their clear differences and have little in common until they are all compared with the word “position.”
I may have five years of study of French, German and translation studies at three universities under my belt but this still is a career that succeeds in challenging the limits of my knowledge and reasoning from time to time… I hope my earnestness is appreciated. Even today, sometimes when I read something written in English which I know was translated from French or German (my professional translation language pairs are French to English and German to English) and come across a bit which I accept is a poor translation, I am simply unable to fathom where it came from. I remember early in my career stating in my marketing material that I have found myself becoming more and more seldom amused by what I read in poor translations, which may or may not have been included in a list stating that they are comical or bizarre. This may be a sign of a truly heightened sense of language and linguistics, but nevertheless my task is only made more complicatedby my need to consider how compatible my translation products will be with the idiolect of their intended readership. I’ve heard of psycholinguistics and I do understand that people can be quick to attach certain attitudes to certain statements – not just individual words, but phrases. Like clichés. But cultural and social concerns need to be borne in mind. Sometimes when I’m doing a translation task I know exactly what is meant by a sentence (after I’ve taken the time to make sure that I really do understand it properly), but because languages tend to be different and work differently (you can only truly understand what is meant by this if you’ve studied a foreign language in depth), it can be hard for me to put it in authentic English. In other words, I can write it in proper English independently, but it is something of a struggle to write it in the kind of English that qualifies as clear, cohesive and laconic and does not use structures which may be found in spoken English but which are just rejected in educated written English. I am reminded of this by a sign in India which read, “Commit no nuisance” – to me, just because it’s detached from the idiolect of English native speakers doesn’t mean that it should strictly be viewed as a “bad” translation. I have asked for help readily in this line of work, and always show willingness to co-operate when I know it is expected of me. When I do know exactly what is meant but it takes time for me to decide how best to write it in my own language where reading it wouldn’t result in someone else’s frustration or confusion (or at least strictly as little as possible)… well, let’s just say that the inventiveness that this calls for is something I regard as a perk in my job!
It is said that translation is as much an art as it is a science; something that only a fool believes that it is possible to learn within the confines of a classroom without allowing for all things abstract. As diligent as I am in my work, though, I will still plead that it’s not always the translator’s fault. I remember once when I was very young when our teacher read to us a passage from a book describing the “Marrog”, and then we all painted our own pictures of the Marrog in our minds; the differences in our imagination spoke for themselves. I believe that this reflects how, sometimes, meaning is just plain ambiguous and existing understanding of specific things inaccurate; something that manifests itself in translation issues for sure. I once heard that a translation of the Qu’ran contained some incorrectly translated terms of certain words in Arabic that even Arabs don’t understand if they “do not have an expert knowledge of the Qu’ran” (whatever that means exactly). Myself, I do speak very good French and German (or I would not be doing this job!) but I do have my limitations when it comes to things like French / German abbreviations or acronyms, or anything else that is normally used only between French / German native speakers. I have asked for co-operation from others in connection with my work and still do, and believe that it’s so much easier for them to provide it when they have access to the original version of something as well as my translation of it. And while I believe that it’s all very well to continue expanding my French and German vocabulary in general, I think it’s every bit as important, if not more so, to know where to find “other things” (usually online): things like dictionaries of French / German terms in specific fields (legal terms, medical terms, whatever) and lists of foreign acronyms… even monolingual dictionaries.
In conclusion, the application of sage and well-reasoned academic prowess alone (the sort of thing that can be taught solely within the walls of a classroom or lecture hall) cannot suffice if I want to be sure of delivering a translation product of professional quality. For at the end of the day, as much as I understand the importance of being impartial in translation work, the message I am supposed to be conveying in a translation project is never my own, but that of someone else, and it is my responsibility to act as such.
I always was a talented linguist as a child, but I’m realising my limits now… but at least I don’t need anyone else to tell me them! I at least hope that I’ve done a good job clarifying what is meant by translation quality here in my outlining of my translation quality policy. I look forward to further adventures and discoveries when I’m doing my next translation job…