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