Could you explain why (you translated a text in a certain way)?
Thread poster: Henry Hinds

Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 08:58
English to Spanish
+ ...
May 28, 2007

As I have gone along translating, resolving new challenges and making difficult choices, or just using my own tried and true solutions from over the years, I have found myself always asking the question: Could I explain why?

I think it is a good question to ask. Many of the documents I translate end up being used in court cases, and if I were ever to be called in to testify on them, could I explain why I made different choices and translated things in a certain way?

Of course no one ever calls me to testify and the only time I ever have there was no issue with the translation. Moreover, I ask the same question whether it involves court documents or other texts having nothing whatsoever to do with legal matters.

This also extends to passages of difficult legibility in paper documents where I am able to determine the meaning. Then another question is added: If asked, could I completely and accurately reproduce the semi-legible text in the original language?

The answer must be "YES" to such questions before proceeding with the translation. If it is not, then I have more work to do.

I am the only one asking myself these questions, and I am not an impartial party. But I find it extremely useful as extra assurance that the product will be of the best possible quality.

How many of you have used this technique? If asked, could you explain WHY?

[Subject edited by staff or moderator 2007-05-28 17:41]


Rafa Lombardino
United States
Local time: 07:58
Member (2005)
English to Portuguese
+ ...
Business field May 28, 2007

I usually work with business-related documents, such as contracts/agreements and corporate communications (internal emails, magazines, press releases), and computer and technology material. When I receive the proofread version to accept/reject changes, I sometimes have to explain why I chose X over Y. Most of the times, it's a matter of language register, for Y is a commonly used work, but X is the term that applies to the field.

There's also the big problem that these two fields are highly influenced by the English language all over the world, so some translators would feel it's good enough to just leave the word in English or create an approximated version, even though a true translation is already out there. In such cases, I always go for what is accepted by major dictionaries instead of relying on company or personal glossaries.

I guess these are my explanations as to why I decided to go with a certain word while translating.


Jim Tucker (X)  Identity Verified
United States
Hungarian to English
+ ...
This question is a fundamental component of the translation process itself May 28, 2007

The act of translation is already an exercise in obsessive self-criticism and probing of the text one has decided on. As a result, I think this question is the basic motor of determining the acceptability of a given wording even before it ends up on the page.

I think the question is implicitly posed, and answered, whenever we reject a possible translation, and whenever we accept one.


teju  Identity Verified
Local time: 08:58
English to Spanish
+ ...
Interesting topic, Henry May 28, 2007

This reminds me of something I heard a colleague say a long time ago: if you get 100 translators in one room, and give them the same text, you will come up with 100 different translations. It boggles the mind. Translation is an art, one that we develop over time, and it is most definitely a very subjective thing. Very rarely is something black or white, there's always synonyms, verb tenses, syntactic variations, neologisms, regionalisms, idioms, and levels of register, among many other variables that make our hair go gray before its time. The result is a reflection of the translator's style and breadth of knowledge, as unique as a fingerprint, or a snowflake.
Preserving the accuracy of the context is crucial in our line of work, particularly with legal, medical, and financial documents. We all strive for perfection, an obsession that most translators share. But we all know that perfection is unattainable. After all, lawyers "practice" law, and doctors "practice" medicine, so, we practice too!
This is one of the reasons why pharmaceutical companies will do backtranslations of each new drug that comes out. There's no room for mistakes there.
The question you pose is an excellent one, would we be able to take a translated document, and sight interpret it back to the source language? The answer should be yes, of course, but it's not going to be the same. And it should not have any errors or omissions. This is why when I proofread, I check for content first, then for style. You can be your own worse critic.


Steven Capsuto  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 10:58
Member (2004)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Depends how the question is posed May 28, 2007

Clients seldom ask me this in the abstract. Usually, it's more specific: "Why didn't you translate it this way?" or "We have a [name of language] speaker here who says that this sentence actually means [client's often screwy alternative translation]."

If the two proposed translations are equivalent in meaning, sometimes it's a matter of geographic difference (American vs. Commonwealth English, for example), or register, or field-specific terminology; or perhaps one term is open to misinterpretation and I choose the other, which is not.

The question is trickier in literary translation, where rhythms and cadences and tone have to be fine tuned, and it's all very subjective.


Oliver Walter  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 15:58
Member (2005)
German to English
+ ...
The translation is for its reader May 28, 2007

Jim Tucker wrote:
The act of translation is already an exercise in obsessive self-criticism and probing of the text one has decided on. As a result, I think this question is the basic motor of determining the acceptability of a given wording even before it ends up on the page.
I think the question is implicitly posed, and answered, whenever we reject a possible translation, and whenever we accept one.

I agree with that. My translations are mainly documents like engineering specifications, descriptions of how something works, instructions, or test reports. I write what I judge the reader would expect to find in the text if a Target-Language colleague were writing it; So that would be my answer to the original question "Could you explain why ...?". Just occasionally I can't find out what is the English term for something that I more or less understand in the source, and then I write a more or less literal translation in the hope/assumption that the reader will understand even if I didn't! When this happens, I'll usually mention it in a comment that accompanies the translation.



Marina Aleyeva  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:58
English to Russian
+ ...
The question is not "why" but "how well" May 29, 2007

You can't answer this question. One reason is that language is an extremely complex matter. We (subconsciously - or, better say, intuitively) use linguistic rules and trends many of which are not yet described, let alone explained by linguistic theory. And even more "rules" and "trends" boil down to plain custom and tradition. I have asked this question myself many times, and always find it difficult to explain why one wording is better or more appropriate than the other although I know precicely that it is better in a given context. Much depends on your reading habits. The more you read (or, more importantly, read when you were small), the more rules and trends you learn intuitively - and, paradoxically, the less you can explain.

However, when it comes to translation, I think the question is not "why" but "how well" a translation gets the message through (taking account of both the "raw" meaning and style, because style is an important part of the message), and the one against which meaningful judgements can be made. Machine translation fails to get it through, which means the wordings it uses are not well chosen or appropriate. If poor style distorts the meaning (or the intended impression of the source text), it's not a good translation, either.

[Edited at 2007-05-29 02:38]


Heidi C  Identity Verified
Local time: 10:58
English to Spanish
+ ...
Why? May 29, 2007

The thing would be to remember... (that sort of seems to be going away with age: What's the name of that doctor, the one with Al and a z somewhere?)


To me, it seems easier to explain why I translated something in a certain way when it was a difficult decision. I probably thought about it and considered several options before deciding on the final word or phrase. I would be able to remember why I picked that option out of others and if asked why that one and not another, I would be able to justify myself or end up saying that the other option is also acceptable.

(It goes without saying, that I would have to be able to have access to both the original text and my translation. Of course, having a "rough draft" somewhere would also help, but those generally get deleted along the way...)

In the case of "easier" stuff, that at the moment seemed logical and probably went out sort of "automatically", if presented with other options, it would be probably be harder to justify my decision (though I am sure I would be able to justify it).

I have seen that as I work, my mental process follows certain steps. And when those steps don't work, the turns I take to find a solution also follow certain routes. So it would be easy to "backtrack" and explain why I translated something the way I did and how I got there...

ACtually, I can add that in the case some difficult translations, I can still pull them out of my head as examples, as they still haunt me (or I am so excited at how I solved the problem!)

[Edited at 2007-05-29 03:20]

[Edited at 2007-05-29 03:22]


Harry Bornemann  Identity Verified
English to German
+ ...
Yes (mostly) May 30, 2007

Henry Hinds wrote:
If asked, could you explain WHY?

If in doubt, ask a lawyer; they can justify anything...icon_wink.gif

You can always find reasons for or against something.
The difficult part for me is to choose between the reasons which I really believe and those which my dialog partner could accept.
It also depends on having enough time available for elaborating the rationale.


Jenns (X)
Local time: 08:58
English to French
+ ...
Marketing May 30, 2007

I am always working on marketing and advertising translation and that must be the most non-literal work you can do. Often I change entire sentences around or even eliminate words or add words because I know what makes sense.


Local time: 01:58
Italian to English
The art of communicating May 30, 2007

Hello. Very nice topic. Since translating falls into the bigger art of communicating, I would offer my explanations keeping this in mind at all times.



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