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.Continue reading “Unquestioned Assumptions About Translation”