September 1, 2019

5 easy ways to judge a translation without knowing the source language

By admin-emal-159 Views-No Comment

Most translators promise accuracy, natural flow, cultural sensitivity, idiomatic language, etc. While translation users may feel that a translation is off, they often don’t know why. It’s just like clothing – you have to look at the seams to see if the product will hold. As a ruthless reviser and translation teacher, I want to share some ways to identify a good translation regardless of the language combination.

For this you need to know three things:

  • A good translation observes the basic rules of good writing – no ifs and buts. Some would say these are language-specific, but I think there are universal rules.
  • A translation can be either free or literal. The most successful translations, like the Luther, King James or NIV Bibles, are those who reinterpreted (or paraphrased) the source text. The best commercial translations also use paraphrase (word-for-sense) instead of metaphrase (word-for-word).
  • In practice, there are many ways in which you can be too literal. I find gross factual inaccuracies much more frequently in literal translations. Why? You can’t rewrite without rethinking – so a loose translation tends to contain more brain work.

So here are the five things to look for in a translation, whether or not you know the source:


1. Do the figures work?

This happens a lot in reports and other boring texts and is really easy for amateurs to check (hopefully before the first customer’s car tire explodes). Here there’s three things that can go wrong:

  1. The translator mistypes a number
  2. The translator forgets to localize (e.g. USD to EUR)
  3. The numbers in the source text don’t work:
    • Our café is open from 2.30 am to 6.30 pm
    • The population grew by 10 percent from 10 million to 13 million

Translators have to do the math – even if they feel more like language people. They have to fix the error, if the given information permits, and inform the client. The worst choice is to just translate literally because “the source said so.”


2. Do the figures of speech work?

With metaphors you have two choices – find a matching target culture metaphor (hard) or write it plain (easy). For the second choice, you’ll first need to rephrase the metaphor in the source language:

  • Not translatable: The Thermomix did a great job. We really hit a home run with this magic bullet.
  • Translatable: The Thermomix sold very well, because it has many functions.

The worst thing a translator can do is talking to German readers about baseballs and bullets, since these objects don’t fly around much in this cultural environment.


3. Do the collocations work?

This is closely related to figurative language. Collocations are words that go together, usually verbs and nouns. Amateur translators tend to repeat verbs religiously, because they think there’s a nuance they might have missed. In non-fiction, this is rarely the case:

  • This decision was fraught with problems.
  • The decision took place in the framework of massive problems.

Here the key words are “decision” and “problems.” The rest are just function words describing the connection.

Translators have a natural tendency to standardize, i.e. switch from slang and figurative language to standard dialect and literal language.

A famous example is “Enjoy Coca Cola,” which in German is just “Trink Coca Cola.” Telling Germans what to do is rude enough, but telling them what to enjoy is a major privacy violation. This leads us to the next point.


4. How does the translation address readers?

Many cultures consider it impolite to address readers directly, not just because of the formal/informal pronoun issue, but also because giving direct instructions is seen as inappropriate, even in an instruction manual. So tech writers generally have two various alternatives:

  • Generic pronouns like one/you (EN) / man (DE) / on/je (FR): “If one turns the key, the car starts.”
  • Passive suggestions: “The vehicle starts, if they key is turned.” instead of “Turn they key to start the car.”

It doesn’t matter how the source text addresses readers. What matters is how the target culture does it. Also check whether the translation is internally consistent. If it switches from “you” to “one” to “we” and then uses the passive, it’s too literal. Yes, this is more of a rewriting job than just translation, but good translators will have strategies for ensuring consistency and they’ll know whether to address English readers as “you” or “one.”


5. Does the language?

While intellectuals of the French school – and local journalists everywhere – consider it a grave sin to repeat a word, it’s really reader-friendly to just call a spade a spade, or to just drop it, if you’ve already mentioned it 5 times:

  • Dogs are kept in many households. Our four-legged companions fulfill many social functions. Hence man’s best friend is indispensable.

Don’t let a translator tell you there’s no better way to write this. The same goes for verbosity & redundancy:

  • The economic, commercial and financial implications are substantial
  • In doing so, while literally thinking whether to actually say what I was going to say… (Unless this is “literally” intended as a joke…)

My pet peeve are bloated tenses. While in spoken language we tend to use tenses with lots of auxiliary verbs (usually progressive), all the languages I know have simpler tenses for writing. German, for example, uses the historical present and the preterite a lot in writing, but rarely in speech. French uses the passé simple in the same way.

  • Tomorrow I will be going –> Tomorrow I’m going / Tomorrow I’ll go
  • Yesterday I was going to go -> Yesterday I planned to


Note that none of these categories contain formal mistakes, like orthography. While typos are a sign of sloppiness, they’re not a sign of poor workmanship per se. The points that I listed betray a translator’s reading comprehension and writing skills. Those should improve with experience (while typos will never go away).

I also all but ignore “the author’s style” – which is how students like to excuse their lazy literalism. First of all, most of the texts on the web don’t have an author. Second, I don’t want to go to deep into translation theory – which I think is neither rocket nor science – but the dominant one right now is Skopos, which kind of says that you should think of your audience first.

So remember, a good translator will produce a text that can stand on its own and reduces confusion. Please leave me a comment, if you liked this!

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