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How subjective is a translation?
Thread poster: Katharine Precious

Katharine Precious
United Kingdom
Local time: 23:46
Italian to English
+ ...
Jul 2, 2008

I recently did a sample translation for a new agency and was told that their native speaker of my language had said that 'everything was correct but he didn't like my way of writing'. I should specify that this was a colloquial piece of advertising text and that I believe I correctly rendered the register. This reminded me of hours of discussion in university translation class where we would argue with the lecturer for wording something one way when he preferred another. So how subjective do you think a translation is? I think that as long as the translation is accurate in content and register, this is what matters, and it is inevitable that no two translators will translate the same text exactly the same way and human to prefer one way over another.

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Amy Duncan  Identity Verified
Local time: 20:46
Portuguese to English
+ ...
Depends Jul 2, 2008

Hi Kate,
I think it really depends on the type of text. For publicity and advertising texts, style counts a lot. Translation can be very subjective for these types of texts, and being accurate is not enough. I often find myself spending considerable time trying to find just the right word for an ad or publicity blurb, and I also use a book of synonyms to give me ideas.

For other types of texts, depending on what they are, translation can be more straightforward.

Occasionally I've had a client complain of "errors" in my work when in fact it was just a question of word choices and style. In these cases the complainer has rarely been a native speaker of the target language.


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Anne Koth  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:46
German to English
Maybe the message just wasn't very clear? Jul 2, 2008

I do not like thee, Dr. Fell
The reason why I cannot tell
But this I know, and know it well
I do not like thee, Dr. Fell.

"He didn't like your way of writing'" is not very helpful, really, is it? Perhaps you could ask for some examples of what the other translator would have written instead. Maybe he actually meant that certain parts sounded a bit stilted or too formal / not formal enough. That sort of comment might be a bit more useful. This comment doesn't come across as very professional to me. Maybe you're better off keeping away from this agency.

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autor  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:46
Portuguese to English
+ ...
Translation and the Written Word Jul 2, 2008


Having spent much of my life prior to translating, in large organisations with civil-service type environments, where I drafted, redrafted, edited and re-edited many thousand of reports written in English, I can testify that there are countless ways of saying the same thing differently. It's true that no two texts mean exactly the same , and however slight, there are always differences in nuance. Is a "contest" the same as a "competition"? So, what chance for the translator? Of course the translator is always right (or always wrong), because there is no such thing as a correct translation.

I recently translated a set of instructions for a procedure, and following a subsequent edit by a "native speaker" , was informed that my translation was "too literal". Huh?

I've even been instructed to repeat previously made translation errors or adopt an inappropriate register (eg legalese for notes of a meeting) because that's the way the end-client liked it (or had got used to it). It's subjective.

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Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:46
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
Don't let it worry you. Jul 2, 2008

There are lots of other agencies, and end clients have different tastes too.

The first 'complaint' I ever had was from a client who said my translation was probably excellent - but it sounded like something his firm's greatest competitior might have on their website, so he didn't want it on his!

We talked it over and changed a few things. I could see what he meant, and when the adjustments were made, he was satisfied, and I had learnt a lot.

There are still clients who ask the agency to send their jobs to the same translator next time (me ), and others who simply do not like my style and prefer another colleague. Great - we can all make a living!

In fields like law and product descriptions or medicine etc. there is often a right way and many wrong ways of translating each particular term or expression. In marketing it depends a lot on the product, customer-target group, brand image and things like that.

Your agency's proofreader may know your style does not fit a particular end client. Never mind.
Find your own style, and find target groups who do like it, and then develop consciously to fit in an area that interests you.

Best of luck!

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Local time: 19:46
Translation contest - merely a matter of style Jul 2, 2008

Have you ever taken a look at the different translations submitted to the translation contest? There is no much difference in terms of accuracy, fluency,... etc. The winner just has a better style, which is recognized by his/her colleagues.

[Edited at 2008-07-02 15:35]

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Jack Doughty  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 23:46
Member (2000)
Russian to English
+ ...
Another poem for Anne Koth Jul 2, 2008

Your poem reminded me of this one:

I do not like the human race.
I do not like its silly face.
I do not like the way it walks,
I do not like the way it talks;
And when I'm introduced to one,
I never think "What jolly fun!"

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José Henrique Lamensdorf  Identity Verified
Local time: 20:46
English to Portuguese
+ ...
A matter of constraints Jul 2, 2008

I had a similar case yesterday, subtitling a somewhat informal-toned video for an unknown end-client through an agency whose owner-operator is a good friend of mine.
The latter sent me the (few) changes the end-client had made, asking me if they were correct. I told her they were, but I lacked the freedom to have made them myself on my turn, and had received no instructions about that. The fact is that as the video will be subbed (and not dubbed), the original soundtrack will be there for any bilingual spectator to criticize.

On the other end, I have a client that for the past 20+ years has given me carte blanche when translating their videos for dubbing. So I've used it all the time, to create - with the later contribution of world-class dubbing artists - videos that "feel" really local, not translated.

As you mention a test translation, and it seems that nobody told you to unleash your creativity, you did the right thing: a translation that is faithful to te original text. The register is most often not the same between languages; sometimes not even in the same language, like EN-UK and EN-US.

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Hester Eymers  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:46
Member (2005)
English to Dutch
+ ...
Too literal or not literal enough? Jul 2, 2008

Some time ago I did two different test translations. I received the feedback from both prospective clients on the same day. Client A told me they found my translation a bit too literal, so they had chosen someone else. Client B told me they found my translation not literal enough, and had decided to give the job to another translator. I decided there was nothing wrong with my translation skills, I just had to wait for client C, who would probably be perfectly satisfied with my work.


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Tatty  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:46
Spanish to English
+ ...
Not very useful comment Jul 2, 2008

His comments weren't very useful, something like that would just leave me wondering. May be you could just slip him an e-mail for a bit more feedback.

Unless they were very short sentences a proofreader during proofreading doesn't really get to grips with the challenges posed by a text.

Naturally, style is very important for advertising and you should be creative.

Any translation present constraints and that is why I think a translation is subjective only to a small extent. I used to test people as a project manager and all good translation tests tended to converge. Course they won't be exactly the same, but the same constraints will have been respected, which is what leads to similar results. Don't know if that makes any sense!

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Ivana Friis Wilson  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 23:46
Member (2008)
English to Danish
+ ...
Useless Jul 2, 2008

Kate, that is just an annoying comment, and as others have pointed out, it is really not very helpful that he doesn't explain his opinion - in fact, if that's all he has to say, he shouldn't say it at all.

I often supply agencies with samples rather than do test translations and I get very different feedback (and I try to provide the same samples). Some like my work, others don't. But from the few that let me see the notes from their proofreader / stylistic editor I learn a lot.

Translation is not an exact science - that's the good and the bad thing about it.

I only had one translation class at university (there was only one available) and it was in my first year. I enjoyed it very much and learnt lots - to my great disappointment I got a fairly average mark at the final exam

Maybe that's partly why I really wanted to pursue translation as a career... I recently had feedback on my samples telling me that my translation seemed "unfinished" and I now find myself very eager to improve my work and contact them at a later stage as they suggested. That was helpful advice.

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ViktoriaG  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:46
English to French
+ ...
Two problems I see Jul 2, 2008

There are two problems with this that I can see.

Firstly, it is a very bad idea to use marketing-oriented text as a translation test. Every single translator who will do the test will provide a different translation - who's to say they are all bad at writing? What is the reference here? Marketing is perhaps the most creative area, from both the writing and the translation angle. It is just unfair to hand such a translation test over to translators - and it is probably not doing any good for the agency either, because with this approach, they will pass by many skilled translators whose writing style the proofreader will not like, and they may end up working with people who are not quite skilled just because the proofreader is holding writing style in such high esteem (and can therefore overlook other important aspects of the translator's work).

Secondly, and I know there will be people who will disagree, marketing text should never be simply translated. It should be transcreated. Marketing text is so intensively based on choice of words (use of buzzwords, for example) and structuring of sentences that many excellent translators fail at the task lamentably, even though they are otherwise the top of the crop. A marketing text that was simply translated by a skilled translator is never ready to be published, even if the translator in question is specialized in marketing and is very competent.

I would not make a big deal about that comment. The agency in question is clearly approaching this the wrong way, so they also may not be always easy to work with. It's probably not a big loss. Unfortunately, too many agencies don't have any personnel who speaks the target language of their translations, and they are then stuck having to rely heavily on outsiders who may also be serving their personal interests.

There is a difference between saying "this is bad" and "I don't like this" - a difference that seems to have been overlooked in this particular case. Just move on and don't worry about it.

All the best!

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Textklick  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:46
German to English
+ ...
Don't worry Jul 2, 2008

kateprec wrote:

I think that as long as the translation is accurate in content and register, this is what matters, and it is inevitable that no two translators will translate the same text exactly the same way and human to prefer one way over another.

Marketing requires more than translation to be effective. Viktoria's mention of 'transcreation' hits the nail on the head.

Viktoria wrote:

The agency in question is clearly approaching this the wrong way, so they also may not be always easy to work with. There is a difference between saying "this is bad" and "I don't like this" - a difference that seems to have been overlooked in this particular case. Just move on and don't worry about it.

Agree fully. Good luck!


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Williamson  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 23:46
Flemish to English
+ ...
Subjective Jul 3, 2008

Objective: You can not change the syntax of a language. Such syntax evolves with time and generation. Some words used in present day French, were not in use 20 years ago.
Semantics: (meaning) equals terminology to a certain extent. A new product or process is invented and a name is given. I remember translating a text about Kitchen and Garden Waste management, when nobody in the Dutch language area was using this term. I abbreviated it to GFT (wich is the Dutch abbreviation for KGW).
Nowadays everybody uses GFT.
I also literally copied a piece from the Moniteur belge/Belgisch staatblad, the bilingual Belgian Official Journal where laws (and technical descriptions with regard to construction, machines, rules and regulations....) can be found. The source text was French, the target text Dutch. However, the editor found it better to change a part of the official text,because (s)he thought that his/her chosen words sounded better.
The same was true for the word "Lid-Staten" /English : Member-States or is it Member States. In the Official Publications of the E.U., you will find Lid-Staten in Dutch. The grammatical rule says it must be Lidstaten, because the root is one word.
Consequently the editor corrected it to its correct grammatical form, but forgot to check the official publication.
Yes, words are subjective and their interpretations differ. But basically, if you do not "sin" against syntax, semantics, spelling, omissions, ... you have a basis to defend yourself. When the reviewer is correct, fine, but not when he is "looking for needles in haystacks" as a reason to reduce the amount on the invoice. Some use the editor does not like this or that word as a reason to as for a price reduction.

[Edited at 2008-07-03 09:14]

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