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Faithfulness or readability?
Thread poster: Miles Crew

Miles Crew  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:12
Chinese to English
Jun 25, 2008

I'm sure that most end clients would like, ideally, to receive a translation that is somehow both 100% accurate and also reads like it was originally written, and written well, in the target language, but unfortunately this can be pretty difficult depending on your language pair. In my case, I often find myself having to restructure a Chinese "sentence" that is actually an entire paragraph- adding words to connect the clauses, taking a pause with a semicolon, or even breaking one sentence into several. Nobody has come back to me yet with a complaint about how I've reordered things, but then I never know just how much QA my work undergoes. I have heard that government departments prefer "literal" or "verbatim" translations, but when I've stuck to the original structure as much as possible with this in mind, I heard about "errors" and "long, confusing sentences".

If I were doing literary translation I would presume to be able to take a good deal of creative license, but when you don't know how the document will be used, and whether or not the project manager, proofreader or end client have any understanding of the quirks of the source language, it can be hard to make a judgment. So, which end of the spectrum do you aim for when clarification isn't available? How do different kinds of documents affect this judgment?

And also, does asking a PM about client preferences on the subject make one look committed to delivering a good product or just stupid? Someone who doesn't even have much or any experience with a second language might think "just get everything right and make it sound good, what are you whining about?" I don't think anyone wants to listen to reasons that what they expect may not be possible, and at this early point in my career, I'm especially fearful of scaring off repeat business with anything that may sound like excuses.

Thanks for all opinions and advice.


Andrea Riffo  Identity Verified
Local time: 07:12
English to Spanish
Interesting question Jun 25, 2008

Personally, whenever I have to choose between translating as literally as possible and rendering a perfectly readable and understandable sentence, I choose the latter. My clients have never complained and have in fact thanked me for breaking down paragraphs that are 10 lines-long into readable sentences, and sometimes even into 2 different paragraphs.

Regarding literary translation... I don't work in that field but my assumption is that it should be the opposite of what you suggest. I'm not sure that the translator could/should take "creative licence" with the text. Isn't that the author's prerrogative? I mean, if the original text has long-winded and confusing paragraphs, wouldn't that be the author's particular style? I can't imagine what José Saramago's novels, for instance, would be like if the (Spanish) translator had decided to take some creative licence and "fix" the punctuation. I would love to have the input from colleagues who specialize in literary translationicon_smile.gif



Juliana Brown  Identity Verified
Local time: 07:12
Member (2007)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Two thoughts. Jun 26, 2008

First, in literary translation (which is one of my areas), if you take creative license, you are basically hijacking the author's work, which is not your job. On the contrary, the idea is to make the target text ultra-readable in that language, without losing the author's voice, rhythm, register, etc.
Secondly, I am in the middle of a very enjoyable editing job at the moment on an art history file, which is very well written. There is, however, a serious problem. Despite the obviously well-formed and very readable English of the target text, the translator has unfortunately decided to use his scalpel a bit too "creatively" and has chopped out bits of sentences which are crucial to register, description, etc. It's not a matter of moving parts of the sentence around for clarity's sake. It's more of a small-scale plastic surgery. Readability can not come at the expense of the original text.


Glenn Cain
Local time: 07:12
French to English
It depends on if you're retaining the style Jun 26, 2008

I agree with Juliana that you should make it readable and be faithful to the original (provided the original is readable).

But in most areas of translation, the message is more important than the style. Plus there just isn't a long enough deadline to find the perfect translation that preserves both message and style. That would take three times the amount of time. So we err on the literal side, or inject our own style, and sacrifice readibility.

When translating [good] literature, the author's unique style is often as important as the story he's telling. The only reason to make it unreadable is if the author was unreadable to begin with.


Miles Crew  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:12
Chinese to English
Okay... Jun 26, 2008

Maybe "creative license" wasn't the correct phrase, I don't mean anything that interferes with the author's voice or intent; I just think that some very normal and neutral structures (beyond simple grammatical structure, I mean) in some languages will sound terrible in translation without some careful but significant reworking. I'm not talking about second-guessing an author's deliberate stylistic choices.

[Edited at 2008-06-26 03:03]


Alex Farrell  Identity Verified
Local time: 20:12
Japanese to English
Run-on sentences in Japanese, too Jun 26, 2008

Japanese can also have run-on sentences that are painful to translate, and are painful to read if translated too literally. So I do the same thing as far as adding connecting phrases and chopping up the text into more manageable parts for the reader, because if it's difficult to read and the message doesn't get through, then there was no point in doing the translation in the first place.

Of course if the source text is badly written in the first place then it's not surprising that the translation will seem the same, though I think this will bring complaints by customers who think you've just made a bad translation. Therefore, if the source is badly written then I try to make it smoother in English.

- Alex


Nesrin  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 12:12
English to Arabic
+ ...
Unspoken pressures Jun 26, 2008

I've been thinking about this same subject lately, and the reason is that - from my observations of the texts I proofread, as well as client's expectations, and occasionally even my own attitude when translating - I've noticed that there's a strong unspoken pressure to translate as literally as possible - the only condition being that the translation retains the minimum level of linguistic correctness (I'm not talking about literary translations here, but all other types).
I think it's a combination of 1) the client not trusting the translator to remain faithful to the source text if he/she starts rephrasing it to make it sound more native, and 2) the translator's exaggerated apprehension, worrying about what the proofreader may tell the client ("The translator has turned this paragraph around!!").
The result has been an abundance of translated texts which, although linguistically "correct" and produced by competent translators, will always read as translations, and idiomatic expressions from the source language gradually making their way into the literature of the target language, when they never should have.

[Edited at 2008-06-26 06:27]


Ivana Friis Wilson  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 12:12
Member (2008)
English to Danish
+ ...
That's what it's all about Jun 26, 2008

I think that is really the core of translation, to be able to decide if the text needs a very word by word literal translation or a more free, but nice to read version.

It entirely depends on the source and client. Sometimes I can translate a text more or less word for word and it sounds great (Danish has a lot of English loan words) and other times I have to reinvent the entire text.

If a client is very specific about terms and aim, then I try to stick as close to the sentence structure of the source text as possible. Sometimes I am asked to rewrite rather than translate and then I do that.

My aim is to produce a text that doesn't "feel" like a translations. I think that's really hard and I am not sure how succesfull I am at that. But I try.

I rarely read books translated from English to Danish as I can often "feel" the source text and it distracts me from readingicon_wink.gif


Marie-Hélène Hayles  Identity Verified
Local time: 13:12
Italian to English
+ ...
Readability Jun 26, 2008

I only do technical translations - no literary and almost no marketing/publicity, although a lot of the texts I translate will end up on product packaging and information sheets/instructions, are destined for a press release or will be read by patients in clinical trials.
I can't comment on literary translations at all, but with technical translations, as I've gained more experience in translating I've come to think that readability is extremely important. I reached this conclusion after I started accepting revisions. Most of the texts I received were simply dreadful word-for-word translations which while grammatically accurate were basically unreadable, and had to be more or less re-written. Others (unfortunately a minority) were beautiful pieces of writing requiring very little revision - and the difference was simply that these translators had not been afraid to chop, change and re-phrase the original to make it read naturally.

This made me reflect that my own translations might well be too literal as well - it's actually much easier to see the flaws or merits in someone else's writing than in your own, and also easier (at least psychologically) to drastically revise someone else's translation to improve its readability than it is to have the courage to stray a little from the original in your own work.

Of course, personal style doesn't come into it with the sort of texts I do, so it's more a question of turning an Italian style variant into the corresponding English style variant. Naturally, you must ensure that you cover the same points as the original, but it's important to produce a text that doesn't sound like a translation, whatever the temptation and pressure (as accurately described by Nesrin) to be as faithful as possible to the original.


Tatty  Identity Verified
Local time: 13:12
Spanish to English
+ ...
Translation school Jun 26, 2008

According to your file you went to translation school. This faithfulness/readability issue is usually central to any translation programme. I studied translation both at university and at a private translation school. Uni promoted excessively free translations, I much preferred the criteria at the translation school. You went to a very good institution, so why don't you think back to what your teachers told you to do there. In Spanish, I know exactly which parts of a text to tone down and where I should remain faithful. It's a dilema I never face. I think it is a bad idea to ask for input from a project manager, as you are the expert.


Chinese to German
you are probably right, if no one tells you are wrong Jun 26, 2008

usually, i just do the german to chinese technical translations. although i am a chinese i also feel chinese is strangely hard to control and also to be translated. Most of chinese in technical documentaions are not normal chinese, it's pretty strange. it uses either freaking long sentences or short ones and always without subject.

I understand what you think. i am also worried when i changed the structure of a sentence too much, but sometimes i have no choice e.g. with trados. and by the ways, what you need is just a talk with your proffreaders, and ask if your work is okay or not and find out what's not acceptable in your text.

that's all

if it's not wrong, then it's right~~~

mail me , if you have any problem about chinese


James McVay  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 07:12
Russian to English
+ ...
My experience Jun 26, 2008

MCrew wrote:
I have heard that government departments prefer "literal" or "verbatim" translations, but when I've stuck to the original structure as much as possible with this in mind, I heard about "errors" and "long, confusing sentences".

Having worked as both a translator and a consumer of translations in a government department, I'd like to comment on the quote. It's true that translations done for a government customer often need to contain some elements that have been translated literally, but not usually the entire contents of a document.

Let's take a hypothetical case where you're translating a document for the Department of State about a government organization in the PRC. Assume further that your customer is also working with translations done by a number of other translators on the same subject. Now each translator might very well translate the name of the organization differently -- and this can confuse the consumer. He or she might very well conclude that the translations concern different organizations, when in fact they are all about the same organization -- and that could cause problems in negotiations with the PRC.

That's one case where it is appropriate to be literal. Naturally, unless every translator does that, the consumer will still have a problem, so an astute consumer will give some guidelines for you to go by.

However, that same document will also contain fairly plain language which, if rendered literally, will be difficult for your non-Chinese-speaking customer to understand. In translating that language, you should render the underlying meaning in English as best you know how, even if it means changing the structure of the original.

[Edited at 2008-06-26 14:44]


Local time: 13:12
French to English
+ ...
horses for courses Jun 26, 2008

There is no one answer to the problem posed.

In the long years I worked in an international organisation, I learned the hard way that it was better to translate preparatory documents for meetings and minutes of the same meetings in very literal fashion, avoiding flights of fancy and stylistic devices. Why? Because when you also interpret (or somebody else does) on the basis of those documents, you can hoist yourself on your own petard: when people read from or quote the said texts, it is better to have something very much in the' same ballpark area a)so as to find it quickly and b) to follow the logic.
It was hard to let some things go through but it made everybody's lives easier and everybody was happier that way. This probably explains why so much of the translation work emerging from the EU, which claims only to take 'la crème de la crème', is such rubbish, though some of the bad translations are precisely that, bad translations. I had to complete a questionnaire for a funding application the other day and I was hard-put to understand what was wanted, so bad was the English text of the questions and so-called explanations.

Other than that, I now operate largely in the communications sector and often have texts translated. My briefing explains that, as long as the fact are correct, the order of their presentation is secondary and the style is what matters most. None of these texts are however a matter of life or death. And fortunately I can check them myself and bring them back on course if they have strayed too far.

I would also recommend readibility, unless requested otherwise. Instructions should be clear. And the rhythm of a sentence is also important.

So you have to walk that fine line between betraying the author and doing him or her (more than) justice.
Not easy - but then, contrary to what seems to be popular belief, translation is a profession for real professionals.

A bon entendeur, salut !


Miles Crew  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:12
Chinese to English
More is less, less is more? Jun 26, 2008

James McVay wrote:
Let's take a hypothetical case where you're translating a document for the Department of State about a government organization in the PRC. Assume further that your customer is also working with translations done by a number of other translators on the same subject. Now each translator might very well translate the name of the organization differently -- and this can confuse the consumer. He or she might very well conclude that the translations concern different organizations, when in fact they are all about the same organization -- and that could cause problems in negotiations with the PRC.

In cases of a proper name or official slogan, I will always first check to see if there is an official English version, or at least a semi-standardized translation. If not, I will use my own, but also include romanization of the original in brackets. I figure this is very helpful to people reading the translation who may have some understanding of Chinese, (I know I feel like I'm deprived of information when I don't get bracketed romanization of key terms- which unfortunately shows up mainly in academic writing, I suppose) and should also help someone who may be reading translations from different sources to determine that two slightly different translations may refer to the same organization/department/program. Unfortunately, the last time I did that, with project manager approval, the word in the end was that "confusing for non-Chinese speakers."

Personally, I always feel that having more information available is better, which is why what I really like is to be allowed to make footnotes regarding any ambiguities or quirks in the original text. And there are a lot of quirks; there's a lot in Chinese that may depend on context, (like, say, whether a noun is singular or plural) and in a few projects I've done, the context was simply not entirely knowable by anyone other than the writer and the small originally-intended audience. I guess the reality, though, is that most clients probably don't want to hear "this could mean either x or y," and will just take hesitation to commit as a mark of a bad translator; So I suppose I'm better off just taking my best stab at it, even if I don't feel a proper judgment can be made even after running the sentence by a native Chinese speaker. It makes me uncomfortable, though.


Claire Cox
United Kingdom
Local time: 12:12
French to English
+ ...
Readability Jun 26, 2008

Like Marie-Hélène, this issue has been brought home to me as I've edited translations done by other people. There is nothing more horrible to read than a literal translation - you stumble over every word. I ocasionally edit translations from languages which are not my own, and that can be even more telling because you are simply reading the document on its own merits. In one case, I edit the translations of a colleague who is an extremely good translator and I rarely have to make more than a couple of minor stylistic changes - they are a pleasure to do! Today, however, I rashly agreed to do a single-language edit for a client and soon regretted it. The translation was full of unnecessary definite articles and noun structures rather than verb structures - all trademarks of a literal translation in my book. There were also large chunks which didn't make any sense at all. I did query them with the translator but she said that the source text was not very good and that was the best she could do. In my view there can never be any excuse for leaving English which is unreadable.

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