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A Perfect Translation Isn’t Always the One that Sounds Good

Photo by Mortimer62, http://www.flickr.com/photos/51408284@N02/5090824600/What is the best compliment for a translator?

A common belief is that the best translation is one that does not sound like a translation at all. Readers do not even realize there was another mind between them and the author. This is often the case with literature, especially classic literature. Take, for example, the French translations of Edgar Allan Poe by Charles Baudelaire, which many consider superior to the original.

While this definition of a perfect translation is generally correct, it’s not universal. Some translations call for a different approach. Let’s look at two reasons why this standard may be impossible or even undesirable.

  1. Formal documents. A legal document follows a structure and rules specific to the source language and therefore does not lend itself to this type of “perfect” translation. No matter how hard a translator tries to make the translation feel more natural, he/she is limited by this structure and these rules. To make it feel more natural would require a complete overhaul. This is impossible, however, because no one wants a translated legal document that is substantially different from the original.

For example, a license agreement translated from English to Russian is bound to feel like a translation, because Russian legal documents are simply written in a different way. A Russian agreement begins with a clause about who is concluding the agreement and when, whereas an English agreement often begins with several “whereas” clauses. An English agreement often uses a lot of terms with relatively similar meaning, such as “indemnify, defend, and hold harmless” or “indirect, special, or consequential damages,” whereas a typical Russian agreement uses just one or two.

The bottom line is that regardless of how a translator attempts to create a perfect translation, a formal document will still have an “aftertaste” of the original language.

  1. Accuracy vs. style. The second, and even more important, reason is accuracy. The general principle is that the more literally accurate a translation is, the worse the style and the less natural it feels. The source and target languages are often miles away in terms of how a well-structured sentence looks. Going for 100% of the original meaning in the translation—and this is what literal accuracy is all about—leads to the feeling that even though the words in the translation are, say, Russian, the text actually reads like the source language, English. To eliminate this feeling, a translator needs to do two things:
  • Omit words that are idiomatic in the source language, but are superfluous in the target language.
  • Go for idiomatic phrases in the target language, even though they may not convey 100% of the original meaning.

Very often, however, this is not an option. When translating a user manual or a clinical trial protocol, accuracy is so important that choosing style over accuracy is completely out of the question.

Another reason that translators choose accuracy over style is the fear of being reprimanded for doing otherwise. With accuracy being one of the main evaluation criteria used by translation agencies and direct clients, how many translators have the courage to stray from it in the ways suggested above? Not many, I guess. Most translators prefer to be on the safe side, putting accuracy first and style second. This makes it important for clients to voice their expectations. For instance, with marketing translations, some clients ask us to avoid a word-for-word translation and make a “transcreation” instead.

Summary

Making a translation sound like it is not a translation at all can be a challenge. With more formal documents, it is next to impossible. With less formal documents, it is easier to achieve, as long as a translator feels it is okay to sacrifice accuracy for style. Because the translator doesn’t know what is right for a specific client, it is important that clients let translators know their expectations about the balance of accuracy and style.

And what is your opinion? Is style really more important than accuracy, since a good translation doesn’t feel like a translation?

Click here to read more about why some translators tend to deliver literal translations.

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About the Author

Roman Mironov
Roman Mironov
CEO & Founder

As the founder of Velior, Roman has had the privilege of being able to turn his passion for languages into a business. He has over 15 years of experience in the translation industry. Roman has helped dozens of clients increase sales by making their products appealing for speakers of other languages.