The objective of this essay is to suggest a general view of translation, but from a more personal focus rather than a technical one, as is often the case. The content of this piece of work is the result of experience gained during my university degree and the short but valuable periods of work experience and practical application of the subject in question; that is, translation.
This essay concentrates firstly on the general characteristics of translation, so that a less expert readership can also understand the meaning. It then reflects on some aspects of translation that might be interesting, since they give us a closer view of the daily life of translators; how they go about their work and the different types of translation they can be faced with. To conclude, there are some personal considerations on what makes a translation good or bad and what makes a translator good or not so good.
Definition and types
In general, translation can be defined as the transposition of a text into a different language from the one used to write the original text. We often talk about the “source text” or “original text/proto-text” and “translation/meta-text”. Translation in itself involves interpreting the meaning of a text and the subsequent production of a new text, equivalent to the original but in another language. It is, in fact, a written transposition of concepts from one language into another.
The translator aims to transfer the text from the source language to the target language so that both the meaning and the writing style remain unchanged. Taking into account the differences between languages, it is often difficult to preserve both. The translator is thus forced to make decisions that vary according to the nature of the text and the aims of the translation. In general, we can distinguish the following typologies in translation:
– informative translation: the translation of texts of an informative nature, such as journalism and the news;
– literary translation: the translation of literary texts, be they prose, poetry, etc.;
– scientific translation: the translation of health and scientific texts;
– technical translation: the translation of texts of a technical nature, such as those related to engineering, automotives or computing.
– legal translation: the translation of texts in the legal field. This is different from sworn translation;
– Financial translation: the translation of texts about finance;
– Sworn translation: the official translation of documents, certificates, etc. that require legal validity. This type of translation can only be done by accredited translators.
Therefore, it is essential to understand what type of translation we are dealing with. It is clear that a technical manual will leave less room for the translator’s personal interpretation than a literary text. The art of translation includes not just language, but also a wide range of cultural and intellectual aspects that form part of the daily life of the people who speak that language and have it as their mother tongue. From gastronomy to literature, through the education system, religion and history, all this knowledge is as essential for the translator as linguistic knowledge.
Translation has to take into account all these characteristics and cultural norms that govern life in the two cultures involved in the translation process. This detailed knowledge of the cultures and traditions of both countries is necessary in order to produce a good translation, which maintains the principal meaning of the text without forgetting its target audience. In this sense translators are authors; writers who do not start writing from scratch, but from a written text in a language which they have to transpose to another language, adapting it at the same time.
The translator has to transfer not just the lexical and syntactic aspects; in fact, a group of words, even if well-constructed at the syntactic level, is not enough. It is hard to understand and lacks that “something” that all good translators have to confer on the text. It could be said that translation means “saying almost the same thing”. All this is designed to achieve a well-defined objective: “say almost the same thing” so that the reader understands, in the clearest and most effective way possible, what the original text aimed to express. The reader does not know the original version, and does not have to know it, but it is important that they understand the text that they have in front of them. The objective is effective communication.
The translator’s dilemma
“Interpreting” meaning can have very different results, since one meaning can have several interpretations. This makes us reflect on how we can translate something exactly from one language to another, given that one sentence or a few words can be interpreted in different ways. So how should the translator interpret meaning? In many ways, certainly, but which is the correct one?
For example, when the author of the text decides to use rhymes or other literary features, translation becomes complicated. A solution to this problem can be found, or at least attempted, by seeking a balance between two main requirements: on one hand, respecting the linguistic form of the text, and on the other hand, respecting its content. In some cases, however, achieving a satisfactory compromise between these two characteristics is simply impossible; respecting the formal structure of the text generates completely different content in the translation and, on the other hand, respecting the content makes it very difficult to respect the formal structure.
In these cases, it is not incorrect to talk about “untranslatability”. There are words in other languages that do not have an univocal equivalent in our own, and a whole sentence is needed to translate them. Sometimes simple sentences can be used, but sometimes they are too complicated and introduce fairly subjective feelings. Language is, in fact, a reflection of how people in a different culture understand the world around them.
The fact that a translated text has to remain faithful to the meaning of the original text, without compromising the linguistic norms of the target language, is a key principle of translation, more or less shared throughout the world. All the considerations of translators and the translation techniques that they choose are based, or should be based, on this principle. In any case, this is not always possible, or at least as easy as it may seem. In fact, it is often the author of the original text who complicates the work of the translator.
The author of a non-literary text is driven by the desire (sometimes also the need) to communicate something. The development of their work is always conditioned by linguistic rules, which lead them to try to follow more or less strictly what is normally considered correct. The author of a literary text is also driven by the desire, or in some cases the need, to communicate something. The difference with the author of a non-literary text is that, although they follow linguistic rules, they try to bend these to their will, trying everything to achieve a certain originality of style and sometimes producing a result that is not always totally orthodox.
In summary, the author of a non-literary text aims simply to transmit a message, to communicate something. The literary author, on the other hand, has the same communicative aim, but tries to achieve it in a totally different way. It is easy to imagine the different effects that these choices can have on the final translation.
In the history of translation, there has always been an argument between those who guarantee fidelity to the author and those who guarantee fidelity to the reader. In general, it is the latter that prevails nowadays, since we aim to achieve a text that sounds as natural in the target language as in the source language. Translators often have to deal with a text that is in fact itself a (sometimes not very faithful) translation of another text.
The translator, as far as possible, has to try to overcome the obstacle of the double translation and make their version as similar as possible to the original. A so-called “intermediary language” is sometimes used. If, for example, the translator has to translate a text where the languages in question are from the group called “rare languages”, it will not be easy to find a translator who speaks both languages fluently and, at the same time, has a good knowledge of the subject matter. So the translator has to trust the translation of another, and the intermediary language is almost always English. This is because English is considered the most international and widely-spoken language, especially in business.
What does a good translator need?
Translation is an act of communication, but this does not mean that it is always carried out in an effective way. To achieve this, the reader needs to have the same linguistic and extra-linguistic foundations as the translator. This really depends on the work of the translator. Every translator has their own resources, sources, experience and methods. Every translator is different. In any case, although each has their own style and rhythm and follows their own patterns and processes, every translator always goes from the phase of understanding the text to expressing the text. In other words, they read a text, analyse it, understand it and then translate the different units of meaning into other units of meaning in the target language.
Translating is not a simple task and requires more work than a simple transfer of words from one language to another. It demands a perfect knowledge of the source as well as the target language, excellent general knowledge and good command of the subject matter of the translation. As well as these requirements, there are texts that are so complex to interpret that they at times cause the translator to make (sometimes serious) errors.
The meaning of sentences is often so linked to the cultural context in which they were created that it is practically impossible to do an equivalent translation capable of maintaining the same meaning as the source text.
What should the translator do in these situations? Is it better to translate literally so as not to betray the idea of the author of the text, but with the risk of prejudicing the quality of the translation; or is it preferable to find a closer alternative that means something in the target language, even if the translated version changes the idea of the original text slightly?
Like many translators, I’m sure, I would answer this question by saying that my aim is to communicate the same idea as the original text. To reach this goal, it is important to translate taking into account those who will be the beneficiaries of the translation; that is, native readers of the target language. Of course, it is also essential that the translator has a good command of their specialism or, in other words, the subject matter of the text.
Obviously we cannot be professionals in all fields and also be translators at the same time; for that reason, if possible, we need the support of different professionals when we translate. We should not forget that in the majority of cases, the client is the best possible professional who can give us all the information we need. Although we must also not forget that the person who asks for the translation and the author of the text are not always the same person.
The translator has to try to go beyond the original words; to reconstruct some meaning in the words that the author sometimes only manages to partially convey.
The translator is faced daily with terms or expressions whose translation presents difficulties. Sometimes the difficulty is that we cannot find a correct translation; often we find too many and we do not know which to choose. A source that confirms the accuracy of the translation of the term in question is of great importance. Generally, those who know how to search can find the confirmation they need in previously translated documents or on the Internet.
In other words, the work of a translator involves getting progressively closer to a text that is, in the target language, the most faithful reflection possible of a certain text in the source language. Some words have very clear translations, whereas others require more work and reflection.
Personally, when I have to translate a text, I prefer, first of all, to read it in quite a general way to understand the subject matter in question. I can then begin a more detailed analysis of those aspects that could be difficult. In other words: terms, sentences and expressions whose meaning or translation is not obvious and which, for that reason, I decide to highlight.
Once this more analytical stage is complete, I begin to research the term, particularly if it is something unfamiliar or technical. I use different tools that can be found online such as glossaries, articles, similar texts, previous translations: anything that can give me a clearer idea of how to go about the translation Then I start the first draft of the new text.
The tools available in Word are very useful. For example, in my case, I highlight in red the words or phrases whose translation are not completely satisfactory. I also underline or use a new line to separate the possible translations of a noun, adjective or verb so that later I can choose the one that seems to work best. This way, the second time I read the text, I have a way to move forward and improve. I try to translate the whole text so as not to lose the thread of the subject area, trying not to get too bogged down by the details.
Once the first draft is finished, I read the text sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, to make it as good as possible from a stylistic point of view, seeking the best solutions so that the translation is as natural as possible for the reader. During this stage, it is important for me to work with both versions; the original and the translation.
Only in the final phase do I put the original to one side, trying to forget it, to be able to carefully revise the translation, putting myself in the place of a reader who does not know the original and who has to understand the text as it is presented. I think this is the best way of guaranteeing that the text is as natural as possible, just like an original text. So the task of the translator involves transferring concepts from the source language to the target language using the same expressions that a native speaker would use in the same communicative situation.
In any case, when there are references, events, circumstances or simply objects in the source language that do not exist in the target language, fulfilling this principle is impossible. In fact, it is sometimes impossible to translate maintaining a 1:1 relationship between the words in the source text and those in the target text; that is, replacing one word in the source text with one other word in the target text.
In this sense, there are many questions about whether it is better to translate sticking more closely to the source language or to prioritise the target text and thus move further away from the original.
According to the first view, the priority of the translator is to be as faithful as possible to the form of the original text. The translator has to reproduce all the stylistic elements of the original and use the same tone and register. They have to keep all the cultural elements intact and, in some cases, force the target language to adopt the form dictated by the source text. The translator must, above all, try not to betray the language used by the author and, if possible, convey the meaning of the message.
On the other hand, according to the second view, it is necessary to prioritise the accuracy of the message to the detriment of style, if necessary. To convey the message, the translator has to substitute the cultural elements in the original text with cultural elements that are more well-known to readers of the target language, even if they are not totally equivalent.
The most important thing is the meaning of the message that the author aims to transmit. The translator has to convey that message to readers of the target language in a natural way. Fidelity to the language, register and tone used by the author of the original text is secondary. These two views are total opposites, although less radical positions can be found in the middle.
Translation is not an exact science; therefore, every time the translator undertakes a job, they have to firstly identify with the author to understand the message they are aiming to convey, and secondly identify with the potential reader and use language that will allow them to easily understand this message. To carry out their task, the translator has to avoid being too rigid; on the contrary, they have to open their mind, make it more flexible and use their common sense. So in the case of a law or a technical text, the translator has to stay as closely as possible to the meaning of the original text.
Literary translation allows them to slightly move away from the exact meaning in order to preserve the style and metre of the original text. There are thus situations in which explanatory notes are necessary; for example, word games (words that appear in the original language but not in the target language, or proverbs or typical concepts of the source language and culture that do not have equivalents in the target language.
Amongst the tools that the translator can use is computer assisted translation. This tool allows them to create a translation memory. The translated text is thus archived in the memory. The first stage involves segmentation of the original and translated texts. This tool is very useful when it comes to translating technical manuals or legal documents because it significantly reduces the amount of time needed to do the translation and allows the translator to maintain coherence in terminology and style throughout the text.
Translation errors, translation assessment
Although the main aim of the translator is to perfect their translation, they sometimes make mistakes. In my opinion, two kinds of errors can be distinguished; firstly, those that are very well-hidden and do not compromise the text. For example, the use of words that are not very natural but not incorrect in the target language; a semantic structure that is understandable but not natural for a native reader; or errors that are only discovered through a detailed analysis and are not apparent from a quick reading. And, on the other hand, there are more serious errors which compromise the meaning of the text, and grammatical errors.
I think it is difficult to establish objective criteria to assess a translation as good or not so good. There is no such thing as a perfect translation; several translators can do a good translation but they can all be totally different from each other. So we can say that one factor is fidelity; on one hand, to that expressed by the author, and on the other hand, respect for the reader and what they expect from a translated text. Another way could be to look at the types of errors and how serious they are.
A text can therefore generate infinite versions and the fact that one is very different from another does not imply that one is good and the other is not. Of course, there are good, average and terrible translations, so there are some criteria that must be respected.
The translation must have all the paragraphs and sentences of the original document; otherwise the translation is incomplete because it does not have all the ideas that the author was trying to transmit in the first place. The translation cannot obviously alter any concept of the original. There cannot be any spelling or grammatical errors.
The translation has to be as fluent as possible, but keeping as closely as possible to the original syntax. This allows for a more enjoyable reading, a better understanding of the text and, at the same time, achieving the final aim: transmitting the original idea.
As for the difference between a good translator and another who is not so good, it is not easy to draw an exact line. A good translator does not always do perfect translations, and a less good translator will never do very good translations.
We can say that to be considered a good translator, one must understand the text to be translated as thoroughly as possible and write a new text that is as detailed as possible, which allows the target reader to understand the message and the meaning with no misunderstandings or doubts.
A good translation will be clear, will not lead to misunderstandings and the fact that it is a translation will not be noticeable; it will be natural.
In conclusion, I think that translation is necessary, or rather, indispensable, to communicate and bring a concept closer to people who belong to different cultural realities. An important element for me is taking into account that every communicative act has a communicative residue; a concept, word or expression that seems to make our translation come to a standstill and to make it impossible to continue. So it is essential to have the ability or skill to see which parts of the message could be misunderstood and which tools could be used to compensate for this residue.
Attention must then be paid to the reader and the context; because every discourse we make, written or oral, is influenced by its cultural context. It is as though there were a border that united two cultures and separated them at the same time, making the differences clear. For me it is here, on this border, where translation takes place.
Debora Tasca, translator and interpreter