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Simplification as a Universal Feature of Translation
Thread poster: BrianHayden
BrianHayden
United States
Russian to English
Feb 18, 2014

I recall reading something somewhere that went something like this: translations are, as a rule and (almost) without exception, linguistically simpler than the original text. I can't recall exactly how they defined "linguistically simpler", but I imagine they meant that the vocabulary was smaller, the syntax simpler, etc. I'm posting for two reasons: 1) I'd like to do some more reading on this (I'm in Russia right now, and library access is consequently a problem, so something online would be nice ); 2) to see what practicing translators think about this.

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Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 02:46
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
Disagree Feb 18, 2014

It depends what you mean by 'linguistically simpler', but I sometimes find quite the opposite!

My husband is just proofreading a text for me which I have translated into Danish, my normal source language. (It's a pro-bono job we are doing jointly.)

Even though Danish and English are quite closely related, we are finding the syntax quite a bit more complicated than the source, simply to make sure we get all the meaning across and nothing but the original meaning.

I often find that - working the other way too. I am just more aware of it in this case.

There are certainly occasions when English has a neat and elegant expression for something complicated in Danish, but at other times the converse is true.

There are also occasions when the target audience consists of non-native speakers, and one avoids the more complex constructions if possible, but that is another matter.

Otherwise I try to reproduce the same register and complexity. The only exception would be when the source is unnecessarily clumsy or difficult to understand, even for a highly literate native - I do not feel obliged to reproduce that!


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Giles Watson  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 02:46
Italian to English
I can see what your writer is getting at Feb 18, 2014

By and large, translators - literary, I presume - want to nail what is denoted in the original, which is generally not a huge problem, and also to reflect its connotations, a much more challenging enterprise and one which requires sensitivity to the stylistic expectations of both languages.

A fine translation, like a fine performance of a piece of music, can be ruined by a single "bum note" so the natural tendency is either to omit the more problematic connotations in the original, or to substitute them with target-language options that may not be quite so effective.


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Spencer Allman
United Kingdom
Local time: 01:46
Finnish to English
There are published texts Feb 19, 2014

Available are texts on universals in translated texts. This topic is one such.

Look on line I should

best

S


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Aleksandra Nikolic  Identity Verified
Serbia
Local time: 02:46
Member (2013)
German to Serbian
+ ...
How is it possible to simplify ANY translation? Feb 20, 2014

My opinion is that there is no way to SIMPLIFY the translation in ANY FIELD from source to target language. It is impossible to simplify the meaning and sense that has to be transformed to sound and have the sense in the target language from the original. No CAT tool, machine translations can provide this. Translation is, like other skills, an art, how is it possible to simplify a music composition or a painting? Even if You simplify (whatever it means, it sounds to me more like accepting mistakes ) ordinary User Manuals, the consequencies for those who can understand only the target language can be very unpleasant. In bad literary translations You just come up with a low sale rate of the books...

Best regards
Aleksandra Nikolic
Translator
German > Serbian


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BrianHayden
United States
Russian to English
TOPIC STARTER
I think you're missing the point Feb 20, 2014

Aleksandra Nikolic wrote:

My opinion is that there is no way to SIMPLIFY the translation in ANY FIELD from source to target language. It is impossible to simplify the meaning and sense that has to be transformed to sound and have the sense in the target language from the original. No CAT tool, machine translations can provide this. Translation is, like other skills, an art, how is it possible to simplify a music composition or a painting? Even if You simplify (whatever it means, it sounds to me more like accepting mistakes ) ordinary User Manuals, the consequencies for those who can understand only the target language can be very unpleasant. In bad literary translations You just come up with a low sale rate of the books...

Best regards
Aleksandra Nikolic
Translator
German > Serbian


It isn't that the translator intends to simplify the text. The idea is that the translator, due to his human limitations, inevitably produces a text in the target language that is simpler than the source language original.


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Lincoln Hui  Identity Verified
Hong Kong
Local time: 08:46
Member
Chinese to English
+ ...
Idea of simplification Feb 20, 2014

It's not so much that there's anything "linguistically simpler" about the target text, but by definition the translator usually only has the content of the source text to work with, and it's usually true that it's better to omit than to add. Having simpler content isn't the same thing as being linguistically simpler.

Then there's the issue that when you're working from a source text you're often thinking in terms of the source. Your base vocabulary often becomes limited as a result and it can be difficult to "not forget" cultural concepts/practices in the target that are absent in the source. This is something that can be overcome to an extent by awareness and experience, however.

how is it possible to simplify a music composition

You are obviously not a musician.


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Radian Yazynin  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:46
Member (2004)
English to Russian
+ ...
Human limitations? - Nonsense! Feb 20, 2014

Or the wrong way around. There is a topic like translating the untranslatable. It's not a matter of translator's laziness, or even ignorance and incompetence. The biggest problem appears to be in overcoming the inevitable difficulties due to different realia. How to best render the source language contents or cope with nonexisting realia in target language, to minimize losses in translation, is a vital issue. So there are objective reasons rather than human mentality or the like. There are many researches in this field that worth while reading.

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Radian Yazynin  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:46
Member (2004)
English to Russian
+ ...
@ Brian Feb 20, 2014

By the way, Brian, I see you translate from Russian and thought you would be interested in reading a book in Russian written by (Bulgarian authors!) Sergej Vlakhov and Sidor Florin "The Untranslatable in Translation", which contains lots of examples that might inspire you in your work. Highly recommended.

[Edited at 2014-02-20 07:32 GMT]


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Annamaria Amik  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:46
Romanian to English
+ ...
Depends Feb 20, 2014

BrianHayden wrote:
It isn't that the translator intends to simplify the text. The idea is that the translator, due to his human limitations, inevitably produces a text in the target language that is simpler than the source language original.


It depends: some translators may do what could be seen as simplification in the target text, but when it comes to form, generally translations tend to have a higher word count (or character count). In a thread dedicated to this topic, our colleagues said their translations were 25% longer on average (in languages where this can be measured, of course). I found that I was more satisfied with my translations which were roughly the same character count as my source text.

As Christine has pointed out, some languages have nuances with more complicated equivalents in other languages.

But a really-really good translator can also create nuances in the translation which weren't there in the original (but could have been). I've seen this in many successful subtitles/dubs, e.g. the Hungarian dubs for Mickey Mouse Clubhouse or Jean Reno's Les visiteurs simply surpass their respective originals


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 02:46
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
Semantically, yes, linguistically, no Feb 20, 2014

BrianHayden wrote:
Translations are ... linguistically simpler than the original text.

I imagine they meant that the vocabulary was smaller, the syntax simpler, etc.


Yes, "smaller vocabulary, simpler syntax" is how I understood "linguistically", too. But I don't completely agree with that. Yes, the vocabulary is somewhat more limited, because the translator has to choose from a group of words that capture most of the meaning of the source text words, but the syntax can be more complex, if the translator tries to capture too much of the original. And the vocabulary limitation only applies if the translator tries to translate the original *words* instead of rewriting the entire original phrase/sentence/paragraph to take maximum advantage of the choice of words in the target language.

So, I think whether a translation is linguistsically simpler depends on the complexity of the source text.

However, I do think that the translation is always semantically simpler than the source text, unless the translator adds to the text things that are not present in the source text.


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Texte Style
Local time: 02:46
French to English
Dumbing down Feb 20, 2014

If we're taking wordcount as a measure of simplicity or complexity (which I might take issue with later) then yes I do a lot of dumbing down as I translate, my translations are probably 90% of the source in length. However, if ever anyone were to quibble, I would take a lofty "Less is More" stance. I translate from French, which is a Romance language, delighting in flowery prose, and also the language of diplomacy, going round the houses to delicately imply something when a Brit would call a spade a spade and a Murcan in an HBO series would call it a bl**dy shovel (JOKE).

Seriously, when translating high-brow academic work, I have encountered sentences that are five lines long. I tend to take the attitude that people reading the translation are likely to have a certain degree of admiration for the author (meaning said author can do no wrong in their eyes). So I like to simplify such sentences a little, breaking the sentence down into at least three. After all, if nobody can understand my translation, it will be my fault!

This reminds me of a cathartic moment in a Doris Lessing novel (the Golden Notebook, or perhaps the last in the Martha series?), when the protagonist is on the brink of leaving the Communist party. She is at a meeting to discuss a pamphlet from the Soviet Union, but nobody can make head nor tail of it, despite their eagerness to soak up the wisdom of Comrade Stalin. Then a dour Scot remarks offhandedly that "well for years we've been saying it must be the translation that's no good. At some point we might have to admit that perhaps the original was rubbish".

Anyway, I have a post-it taped to my screen to remind me that "If you can't get it right, make it better".


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Texte Style
Local time: 02:46
French to English
The Untranslatable in Translation Feb 20, 2014

Radian Yazynin wrote:

By the way, Brian, I see you translate from Russian and thought you would be interested in reading a book in Russian written by (Bulgarian authors!) Sergej Vlakhov and Sidor Florin "The Untranslatable in Translation", which contains lots of examples that might inspire you in your work. Highly recommended.

[Edited at 2014-02-20 07:32 GMT]


and then you could translate it for the rest of us hey?

[Edited at 2014-02-20 09:02 GMT]


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urbom
United Kingdom
Local time: 01:46
German to English
+ ...
Research: an important skill for translators Feb 20, 2014

BrianHayden wrote:

I'd like to do some more reading on this (I'm in Russia right now, and library access is consequently a problem, so something online would be nice )


There are plenty of scholarly articles available online, and even some books on Google Books (though usually with some pages missing from the online view).

One such example is this book:
http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=-oy18CAIQisC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
Look at Chapter 4.

I suggest entering the following combinations of words into your preferred search engine:
translation universal simplification
translation simplification corpus
... and other similar combinations related to the subject. You'll find lots of reading material online.


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tnieminen
Finland
Local time: 03:46
English to Finnish
Linguistic complexity Feb 20, 2014

There's a lot of research on language complexity (see e.g. Language Complexity), and the one aspect relevant to this discussion is the equicomplexity hypothesis, the hypothesis that all languages are in some way equally complex (e.g. the poverty of English morphology is compensated by complexity elsewhere, for instance syntactic restrictions).

Idea of translation as simplification seems to take equicomplexity for granted, but I think the consensus is shifting towards there being significant complexity differences between languages. So one would assume that a translation from a simpler language to a much more complex language would tend to be more complex than the original. For instance, translating from a creole (or even pidgin) to a morphologically complex non-creole language would probably require adding a lot of complexity to the translation to disambiguate the meaning.


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