Example of a safe-bet translation

Someone recently emailed me asking for an example of a safe-bet translation, which I wrote about in this post.

Safe bets are basically sitting-on-the-fence translations you might be tempted to use when you’re not sure what the source term means because it appears, particularly from a linguistic point of view, to cover all probable options.

The result is often an unidiomatic invention that will probably also be an inaccurate translation.

I wanted to put an example in the original post but wasn’t sure it would be very useful as these errors are largely dependent on the document, the translator and also even the client, i.e., the context, the translator’s subject knowledge and the client’s situation.

Outside of these circumstances, these errors don’t seem like much because they are the product of imperfect knowledge not a problem in retrospect. We are not talking about constant translation problems regarding, for instance, mismatching source and target terms, a frequent problem in legal translation.

Also, I should admit that the only example I could think of at the time was quite general and far from perfect.

However, that’s probably the norm for this type of errors; they’re often not very logical because they arise from imperfect knowledge, an imperfect source text/context or a misjudgement.

Basically, the dilemma arises owing to imperfect knowledge in a given situation by a given translator.

But, while they might be difficult to pin down, there are important as they can throw the reader and wreck an otherwise good translation just as easily as any other type of error.

Anyway, here’s my response to that reader and an example:

I should have put an example in the article. The problem is these errors are not generic and are specific to a particular text and the translator’s knowledge (i.e., different for everyone most of the time).

It’s not a problem with specific terminology, nor is it about legal translation in particular. It’s when, for one reason or another (lack of subject knowledge, unclear source text, etc.), the translator is unsure about a term or section of the text and decides it’s time to choose one of the two (or more) possible options or use a safe-bet: a term which vaguely covers both options but is often not very natural, i.e., a fudge.

So, more than a particular type of terminology, it’s more about the translator’s reaction to a type of dilemma that must come up once in a while for everyone, I think. The question is how you do deal with it.

Here’s a simple, possible (it depends on translator knowledge or lack of it) example.

Take the verb “dirigir” in Spanish. In general, it can mean many things: direct, address, send, point to, etc. In an IT context, which was where I had the doubt with it, I wasn’t sure if it meant the application actually sent the message, request or whatever it was or just pointed to or addressed the message somehow and some other component actually sent the message.

As far as I can remember, I think “sent” was the right option, and maybe the other possible nuances, even if they might have been possible at a technical level, weren’t really applicable or useful for the text (too detailed and not usually spoken of).

In this case, the dilemma was a misjudgement on my part — I was overthinking the problem owing to a lack of subject knowledge.

Here a safe bet might have been “direct”, a word that while seemingly covers all the options and nuances (that I mistakenly thought were important!) in English for this particular IT context, probably would have sounded out of place compared to the other options and therefore incorrect.

A problem of this type is obvious if you have the subject knowledge, but is not if you don’t. They can also arise if the original is too vague or the source term is actually a hypernym that doesn’t exist in the target.

Thank you to that reader for her question.

Written by Rob Lunn

Rob Lunn is a freelance translator based in Spain. He translates from Spanish and Catalan into English and specialises in legal translation.

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