I don’t like your translation

I don’t like your translation

by Solveig Rose, translated by Holly Mickelson

I’m sure many translators are familiar with this situation: the text, which the client needs “as soon as possible,” is littered with technical terminology and internal jargon. For the specialist reader, the relationships are crystal clear; the (outsider) translator, however, is left to grapple with what the calcium-fluoride grain-size distribution has to do with the dehydrofluorination results. Dictionaries are feverishly consulted, terms are googled, webpages called up and closed again. The masterpiece is completed at last, delivery terms are met, and – for all intents and purposes – the outcome is satisfactory. Which is why the customer’s assessment is like a slap in the face: “I don’t like your translation.”


Well, why on Earth not? After all, the technical terms have all been tracked down and accounted for. Logical connections have been made everywhere. And finally, the translator has even understood the difference between pentafluoropropane and pentafluoropropene. In fact, the knowledgeable client does not complain about the content of the translation, and there are no spelling or grammar errors. So, what went wrong?

The historical dilemma

We’ve all heard it repeatedly: “If you know the words in the other language, you can translate them.” Cicero – who, way back when, had already recognized that a translation is not limited to just vocabulary – noted that there is a difference between a strictly verbatim translation (ut interpres) and a faithful translation that captured the spirit of the original (ut orator). In some cases, rather than blindly following the wording of the original, translators must adjust to suit their readers in the same way orators adjust to suit their listeners. Indeed, it is sometimes very difficult to decide how true a translation must stay to the original or how strongly the formulation should deviate. In this case, the answer is seemingly straightforward: “purpose is the overriding principle of every translation.” This means translators must ask the following questions to deliver satisfactory work to their customer:

• What kind of text is it?
• Who is the reader?
• What purpose should the text fulfill?
• What should the text accomplish?

For example, if a text is firmly grounded in a legal context, a company statute, or a court decision, staying as true to the source text as possible is usually required to highlight any differences between the legal systems. The translation thus is made “foreign” – readers are forced to position themselves within the language and culture of the source text. If a statement is not comprehensible for the target readers due to significant cultural discrepancies, it is the translator’s job to intervene and explain. This is miles away from “just translating the words.”

For advertising and website content, it’s different: The translator who asks the right questions quickly determines that the impact – the sense – of the text should be in the foreground. A verbatim translation will undermine this. The aim is to create a text that informs or motivates the reader. Possibly, the translation must fall back on totally different metaphors or wordplay to fit the target reader’s cultural or language conventions. In fact, a German audience would scratch their heads in wonder when asked – as one typically would be in English – to “find the proof in the pudding.” At a German table, taste takes precedence over study!


Translation 4.0 – new challenges

The age of internet blogs, intranet portals and online magazines presents a legion of additional difficulties to consider along with classical translation strategies. A typical example of this is a predetermined length that cannot be surpassed. This often requires succinct, concise formulations that simultaneously reproduce the desired effect. Finding the right formulations can be a protracted process – but in the digital age, time is in short supply. Often, it comes down to finding the best compromise between exactness, length and time pressure.

Speaking of time pressure: when several translators work on a single text at the same time to meet a tight deadline, consistent use of terminology and expressions presents an additional challenge. To succeed, close collaboration and a regular exchange of information is essential. Modern technology such as chat groups, clouds and translation software simplifies this process enormously – provided everyone involved has up-to-date software and the tools don’t present any problems.

Especially in international companies, it is also common that translators have to comply with different content conventions and requirements from one country to the next. While one subsidiary embraces flowery and enthusiastic language, another values a sober, functional style. As a result, the job of the translator goes far beyond simply transferring the original into the target language. Rather, this requires writing a new text that conforms with the content of the source document but has formulations that match the conventions favored by the target language’s locations. A bit of a hot potato, since it is not always so easy to guess how far a translation may or should deviate from the original, if information needs to be added that the target readers might find particularly interesting, or – exactly the opposite – if information should be deleted because it isn’t relevant. So, for French readers, it might make sense to only peripherally mention a company’s processes at its German location; for German readers, the developments achieved by their French colleagues might be of less interest.

From translator to service provider

If several challenges need to be simultaneously addressed, such as length limitations, time pressure and style conventions, it creates a complex profile of requirements that is nearly impossible to achieve. It is no surprise that, nowadays, traditional quality criteria including sound grammar and accurate content recede into the background as an assumption. Instead, using the target readership’s given requirements, translators are expected to produce a text that is linguistically, textually and stylistically comprehensible. This requires close cooperation with the customer to gauge his or her expectations and demands on the one hand, and to point out any potential difficulties on the other. In other words, the traditional role of the translator has been transformed into that of a language expert, editor and consultant, for whom the customer service concept has crept increasingly into the foreground.

Of course, if this is done right, the balanced combination of all of these factors to be considered is rewarded with the customers’ pleased reply: “The text reads as if we wrote it ourselves.”

¹ Stolze, R. (2005): Übersetzungstheorien. Eine Einführung. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag. p. 18.
² Reiß, K. and Vermeer, H. J. (1991): Grundlegung einer allgemeinen Translationstheorie. Tübingen: Niemeyer. p. 96.
³ Compare to the concept presented in “foreignizing translation” by Lawrence Venuti (1995): The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. London and New York: Routledge.

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