5 ways to judge a translation without knowing the source language
Pretty much every translator promises accuracy, natural flow, cultural sensitivity, idiomatic language, etc. While readers may feel that a translation is off, they often don’t know why. It’s really just like clothing — you have to pull at the seams to see if a piece is well put together. Having worked a long time as reviser and translation teacher, here are some ways you can spot a good translation regardless of the language combination.
For this you need to know three things:
- A good translation observes the basic rules of good writing — no ifs and buts. Some would say these are language-specific, but I think there are universal rules. A wordy or poorly written source text is no excuse.
- A translation can be either free or literal. The most successful translations, like the Luther, King James or NIV Bibles, are those who reinterpreted (or paraphrased) the source text. The best commercial translations also use paraphrase (word-for-sense) instead of metaphrase (word-for-word). You might remember from college — paraphrasing well is much harder than just copying a text.
- There are many ways you can be too literal, and it’s no protection against factual inaccuracies, rather the opposite. Why? You can’t rewrite without rethinking — so a loose translation requires the translator to think harder about the text they’re working on.
So here are the five things to look for in a translation, whether or not you know or understand the source language:
1. Do the figures work?
This happens a lot in reports and other boring texts and is really easy for amateurs to check (hopefully before the first customer’s car tire explodes). Here there’s three things that can go wrong:
- The translator mistypes a number
- The translator forgets to localize (e.g. USD to EUR)
- The numbers in the source text don’t work:
- Our café is open from 2.30 am to 6.30 pm
- The population grew by 10 percent from 10 million to 13 million
Translators have to do the math — even if they feel more like language people. They have to fix the error, if the given information permits. The worst choice is to just translate literally because “the source said so.”
2. Do the figures of speech work?
With metaphors you have two choices — find a matching target culture metaphor (hard) or write it plain (easy). For the second choice, you’ll first need to rephrase the metaphor in the source language:
- Not translatable: The Thermomix did a great job. We really hit a home run with this magic bullet.
- Translatable: The Thermomix sold very well, because it has many functions.
The worst thing a translator can do is talking to German readers about baseballs and bullets, since these objects don’t fly around much in the environment of potential Thermomix customers.
3. Do the collocations work?
Collocations are words that go together, usually verbs and nouns. Amateur translators tend to repeat verbs religiously, because they think there’s a nuance they might have missed. Or they’ll espouse the most elaborate expression their thesaurus produces. Verbs and adjectives may carry feelings, but they usually don’t carry as much meaning as we think.
- This decision was fraught with problems.
- The decision took place in the framework of massive problems.
- Problems were connected to the undertaking of this decision.
Here the key words are “decision” and “problems.” The rest are just function words describing the connection.
Translators have a natural tendency to standardize, i.e. switch from slang and figurative language to standard dialect. Sometimes they overdo it and use literary terms.
One example of a smart translation is “Enjoy Coca Cola,” which in German is just “Trink Coca Cola.” There’s no enjoyment in this slogan, because you wouldn’t order a German to enjoy a product. Telling them Germans what to drink is harsh enough already. This leads us to the next point.
4. How does the translation address readers?
Many cultures consider it impolite to address readers directly, not just because of the formal/informal pronoun issue, but also because giving direct instructions is seen as inappropriate, even in an instruction manual. So tech writers generally have two alternatives:
- Generic pronouns like one/you (EN) / man (DE) / on/je (FR): “If one turns the key, the car starts.”
- Passive suggestions: “The vehicle starts, if they key is turned.” instead of “Turn they key to start the car.”
It doesn’t matter how the source text addresses readers. What matters is how the target culture does it. Also check whether the translation is internally consistent. If it switches from “you” to “one” to “we” and then uses the passive, it’s too literal. Yes, this is more of a rewriting job than just translation, but good translators will have strategies for ensuring consistency and they’ll know whether to address English readers as “you” or “one.”
5. Does the language make sense?
While intellectuals of the French school — and local journalists everywhere — consider it a grave sin to repeat a word, it’s really reader-friendly to just call a spade a spade, or to just drop it, if you’ve already mentioned it 5 times:
- Dogs are kept in many households. Our four-legged companions fulfill many social functions. Hence man’s best friend is indispensable.
Don’t let a translator tell you there’s no better way to write this. There’s no translation rule that says you can’t just render this as “Dogs are awesome!”
The same goes for verbosity & redundancy:
- The economic, commercial and financial implications are substantial
- In doing so, while literally thinking whether to actually say what I was going to say… (Unless this is “literally” intended as a joke…)
Note that none of these categories contain formal mistakes, like orthography. While typos are a sign of sloppiness, they’re not a sign of poor workmanship per se. The points that I listed betray a translator’s reading comprehension and writing skills. Those should improve with experience (while typos will never go away).
Note that “preserving the author’s style” has no value in itself if nobody understands you. A translator’s first job is to understand what they’re reading and second to transfer that understanding to the reader.