Producing a quality translation
Defining a quality translation is complicated. Translated material should accurately reflect the message of the original material in the target text. The target text should sound natural and should be grammatically correct in the target language.
The quality of the source material will be reflected in the translated document: It is important to remember that the quality of the translated document is directly related to the quality of the original text. If the original text is poorly written, it is difficult and may be impossible to create a translation that does not appear to be poorly written in the target language. For example, if the original text uses sentence fragments, if it is vague and unclear in meaning, or if it is poorly organized and if information is missing, the quality of the translated document will be affected.
If translated material is targeted for a particular audience and a specific reading level is desired, that expectation needs to be reflected in the original text. Careful consideration of the original text often reveals that the language is written at a higher reading level than intended. It may also reveal that the text is unnecessarily complicated or ambiguous and that it will not translate into clearly understandable text.
It may be necessary to consider rewriting all or parts of the original material prior to translation. This determination should be made at the beginning of a project.
There must be an understanding of the limitations of the translation process. A translated document cannot be expected to perform all the functions of "cultural brokering". In other words, a translation is not responsible for helping the reader negotiate the culture. A translation can only convey the information written in the original document. It helps to understand this dilemma if one considers that not all readers of the original material are able to understand the content of the material.
The translator is bound to translate only what is written in the original text. In cases where a word or concept does not exist or have an exact translation in the target language, the translator will create a phrase or simple explanation in order to include the idea in the translated text. For example, if there is no word for "parking meter" in Hmong, the translator might describe a parking meter something like this: "the gray machine by the side of the road where you insert coins in order to buy time for parking".
What a translator cannot do is expand or explain the ideas in the text. If an original document states "don't use detergent to wash the floor," the translator cannot go into a lengthy explanation of what detergent is and how it may harm the surface of the floor.
This simple example illustrates a serious concern with translation projects. The target audience may lack cultural understanding of a process, an idea, or a term. A bilingual reviewer of a translated document may object to a translation not because it is an inaccurate translation but because it does not provide an explanation of difficult concepts. The issue of understandability should be addressed at the beginning of the process when the source text is reviewed and discussed prior to translation.
Is it a literal translation?
At times a translation is accused of being a "literal" or "word for word" translation. It is never appropriate to simply translate all the words in a document into equivalent words in the target language, line them up and call the translation complete. This type of "word for word" translation is not appropriate. The message of the original text should be as natural sounding as possible in the target language. The target text should be grammatically correct and written according to the conventions of the target language.
However, it is essential that the target text reflect the original text accurately. If the original text uses long complicated thoughts, the target text will reflect that style. If the original text uses advanced vocabulary, technical or legal terms, etc., the target text will do the same. If the original text is stilted, ambiguous, redundant, etc., the target text will have the same limitations.
It is vital that the translator does not make assumptions regarding the original text, attempt to simplify the text, or explain the text. For this reason, the target text may not always sound "natural" to the target audience. For example, a notice on a baby changing station reads "do not leave child unattended" On reflection, this is not a natural sounding sentence in English. It would sound better to say "don't leave the baby alone."
However, use of the more natural sounding phrase would not have the same legal implications. Someone changing a baby and stepping to the sink to wash their hands is not leaving the baby alone but is leaving the baby unattended. A translator must take care to include the meaning of the word "unattended" in the translated text even if the final version does not sound "natural" in the target language. Additionally, the translator cannot take the liberty of explaining what is meant by this sentence by writing something like this: "don't walk away and leave the baby alone because the baby might fall on the floor."
Producing a quality translation reflects all of the above mentioned challenges and limitations. It is important to keep these elements in mind when judging feedback from reviewers or the target audience regarding a translated piece of material.
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