Unquestioned Assumptions About Translation

Image by Eric Andresen
Image by Eric Andresen

Encountering translation both professionally and casually, as a consumer, I can’t help noticing certain assumptions on which people operate when ordering, evaluating, and sometimes even performing translation. I will list some of them here in the order of apparent complexity. In other words, while each subsequent attitude may look like a solution to the previous challenge, in fact it only poses more questions. But let us delve into the specific assumptions. Please note that I am not arguing these assumptions are wrong; I am saying they shouldn’t go unchecked and should be applied on a case by case basis.

“Translation Must Reflect The Form of The Original”

This sounds like a naive statement, but this idea is still around, especially in government and personal documents . For example, the credential evaluation service WES asks that applicants send “documents in their original language, together with a literal word-for-word translation by an external translation service.” This notion may originate from the fear that the translator may embellish, omit, or corrupt the meaning of the source (that is, original) text by virtue of interpreting it in terms of the target (that is, translation) language.

However, what people do not realize is that it may not be desirable or even possible to use literal equivalents in a different language. For education credentials, Russians who graduate high school receive a certificate of (literally) “middle” (среднее) education. For someone not familiar with education in Russia, this may sound like “middle school,” which may seriously affect the candidate’s job or education prospects.

In the words of the linguist Roman Jakobson, “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.”  Grammar and vocabulary systems of different languages do not align perfectly, and we often need to add information or omit  information in order to produce a translation. For example, it is impossible to say “cook a meal” (готовить) in Russian so it would not also mean “prepare a meal.” If a restaurant wishes to distinguish between these two notions, they may need to say something like “get the ingredients for a meal ready” vs actually “cook a meal.”

The literal translation approach can make sense in a limited range of applications. In the case of WES, the company states that it “evaluators, who are multi-lingual, [will] verify the translation.” In other words, they will not be thrown off by unusual descriptions. However, in most cases, word for word translation is counterproductive and confusing.

“Translation Must Reflect the Sense of the Original”

A natural response to the challenge above seems to translate the meaning, rather than the words, of the source text. Instead of translating word for word, the translator is encouraged try to capture the sense of the original utterance and convey it in terms of the target language. This has been called dynamic or communicative equivalence.

This approach recognizes the differences in vocabularies and grammars of different languages that make literal translation misleading or at times downright impossible. However, it fails to take cultural differences into account — a translation faithfully conveying the sense of the source may sound bizarre or offputting. Take the example of the American “Have a nice day” said to customers as they leave the store. While it is certainly possible to convey the sense of “may you have a good day” (“Хорошего дня!”), the very mention of how someone should spent their time sounds obtrusive in Russian. A more neutral solution would be to use the culturally appropriate “До свидания” (Goodbye) or “Всего доброго” (All the best).

“Translation Must Reflect the Intention of the Original”

As in the “Have a nice day” example above, some translators — and translation clients — argue that translation needs to have the same effect on the audience as the original did on its readers. Warning signs are a good example of that. So, most likely than not, “wet paint” will not say “wet paint” in translation. In case of Russian, it is “Careful; painted” (Осторожно, окрашено!). However, that should not matter as long as the reader understands what is expected of them — to keep clear of the painted surface.

The issue is that it may not be possible or desirable to produce the same effect on the target audience as on the source audience. A known example is Gulliver’s Travels — thought to have been written as a political satire but is now often read purely as a work of fiction. In the non-fiction realm, a product review aiming to make you buy a product available in that country will need to have a different purpose when translated for countries where that product is not available. This mutability of purpose of translation is reflected in the skopos theory of translation.

Now What?

Well, so what are we to do, you might say? Should we just ignore the form, meaning, and intention of the source text and let the translator–or the client?–decide how the translation should read? What about the rights of the author of the source text? This is where translation ethics comes into play. I do not have all the answers, nor am I denying that the principles above can and should be adhered to in certain situations. However, translation is a delicate balancing act between the interests of the author, the customer, the audience(s), and the translator, and a good translator should strive to be aware of all the stakeholders and how they will be affected by the choices made during translation.


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