How to Map Out Successful Routes that Steer Your Translation Projects the Right Way
Which question would you respond to positively: “Care to join me?” “Would you like to come with me?” “Can you please come?” Or are they all the same? Translations can be the object of much scrutiny, and sorting out what the proverbial bone of contention may be in individual cases is difficult. Let’s take a look at the process and see if there are any road signs that will help avoid complicated detours.
The beauty of the linguistic landscape
In any given language, there are many ways to express an idea, a fact, an opinion. Whether in conversation or in writing, we have to choose one, and our decision will be based on a variety of factors—the best-suited vocabulary and terminology, the most befitting grammar, the proper style. Yet, the choice is subjective in that we are to decide what works best on all those levels, and someone else might argue that it can be said better, or more eloquently, or more pointedly. The same is true for the translator. While it is the translator’s responsibility to decode and interpret these aspects in the source document, when it comes to choosing how they are best rendered in the target language, more than one option will present itself.
Knowing the difference
Even when clear mistakes and misinterpretations are ruled out, there might be translation options that can’t make the cut for other reasons. 1. The terminology is correct, but the client uses a different variant. 2. The sentence structure is accurate, but lacks flow and clarity. 3. The style corresponds to the original, but is not appropriate for the target audience. Experienced translators will do their best to avoid these pitfalls and (1) check with the agency if the client has supplied specific terminology, (2) choose readability over literality, and (3) customize the text for the intended market.
Where content and form converge
One of the classic rules of thumb for translators is the seemingly straightforward “Don’t add anything, don’t leave anything out”. Of course, if the source text reads “The fish weighed 250 pounds”, the translation should not be “The fish weighed a whopping 250 pounds”. Or should it? As a matter of fact, if the next sentence goes on to make a statement about the fish’s weight to this effect, it is a recognized translation technique to reorganize the text structure in a way that is more suitable in the target language. What’s more, all the examples above defy the line that is drawn by this rule between content and form, i.e. implying that the latter can be changed while the former needs to remain consistent. The two aren’t necessarily as separable as we might wish. Philosophy has long claimed content and form to be indivisible, so how are we to divide them in translation? Artists always strive for a balance of the two, because “When form predominates, meaning is blunted… When content predominates, interest lags.” (Paul Rand).
Feedback that gets you on track
Reviewing a translation thus involves taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture. This includes an in-depth look at the original document. If the reviewer finds a statement in the translation of a marketing message that seems out of line with local policies, it must be verified if it is indeed the translation of the message that creates this impression or if it is the message itself that may be appropriate for one market but not for another. There is a limit to what a translator can do with regards to adapting form and content to the target audience. If cultural concerns are involved and the entire concept needs to be replaced—for instance because of religious or political references, or because of the use of colloquialisms that are acceptable in one culture but not the other—client and translator should work together to come up with a solution. If the source document contains information or facts that the reviewer in the target market feels should not be put out to this particular audience, the translator’s hands are bound. In this case, the rule of refraining from adding and eliminating elements fully applies: There is no way the translator can add the weight of the fish into the translation or take it out.
Alternate ways to your destination
To arrive at a target document that is the best it can be and as free of controversy as possible, defining and discussing your goals with your language service provider of choice as well as with your foreign partners on the outset is crucial. When placing the translation order, let the agency know if you are concerned with culturally sensitive issues. If the material turns out to require adaptation to match target market customs and conventions, for instance because it addresses the audience in a way that wouldn’t be appropriate or uses humor in a way that might be misunderstood, the agency will assign translators specializing in this type of material. If your foreign affiliates are concerned with the choice of information and facts or feel that even providing company terminology and other guidelines will not result in a translated document customized enough to appear on their websites, packaging etc., there is another option. You can let them know from the start that you will have your source document translated as is, but that they can customize it after the fact, i.e. make changes that include adding and taking out components of the text. This version is then back translated, so that it is clear where the differences lie and headquarters remains in control of the distributed content.
Key is that the ride never really is the same, but understanding what matters to get you there and working closely with your co-pilots should make it equally joyful and successful.