March 26, 2021

A quick check for human translation quality

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In general, translators become less literal over time and with increasing subject-matter expertise. Literal translations are a commodity, and customers have good reason to ask themselves, why they’re paying for a human translation that reads like DeepL with fewer bad term choices. Yet, there’s plenty of ways to ruin a translation that are not obvious.

Many human translators don’t fully grasp language economy, reader-friendly writing or differing text type conventions between languages. So you might invest a lot in producing people-centric copy, just to have a translator address your customers like they’re applying for welfare.

Two basic features of modern English are that sentences without an agent sound “off,” and that and topicalizing the agent greatly enhances readability. This is usually over-simplified as “avoid all passives.”

If translators ignore these rules, you end up with translations that are formally correct but hard to understand, because they don’t say who is supposed to do what to whom. Look at the following example: both MT and T1 topicalize “reasons” and omit the agent (students).

Original DE: Die für den Rücktritt oder das Versäumnis geltend gemachten Gründe sind dem Ausschuss unverzüglich schriftlich anzuzeigen und glaubhaft zu machen.

MT: The reasons put forward for the withdrawal or absence must be reported to the Committee in writing without delay and it relies.

T1: The reasons brought forward to justify withdrawal or non-attendance shall be communicated and substantiated in written form to the Examination Board without delay.

T2: The student must report and substantiate their reasons for withdrawing or failing to appear for an examination to the Examination Board immediately in writing.

In T2, the translator made clear who is responsible for what (students must inform the Board) and added the context (examination).

I’m not saying only highly experienced translators are able to produce such translations, but make sure to discuss target language requirements with your translators in advance and encourage them to translate mindfully.

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