Safe-bet errors: a translation’s worst enemy

An easy way to wreck an otherwise good translation is to include the safe-bet translation of a term or two in it.dilemmas, dilemas

What’s a safe-bet translation and why is it often an error?

A safe-bet translation is when you’re not sure if term X in the original means A or B, so you choose translation Y, a sitting-on-the-fence, sort-of equivalent to X.

(I’m not talking about where X could or should be open to interpretation. X means A or B in the source language; you just don’t know which one.)

Safe-bet translations are often errors for one or both of the following reasons:

  • The safe bet (Y) is not what was meant (A or B) and is therefore, technically at least, incorrect.
  • While safe bets can appear to be a fantastic turn of linguistic sorcery to a language-focused translator, they often stand out like a missing apostrophe to a specialist or even just an attentive reader.

So, safe bets can be both inaccurate and inelegant. And we’re not just talking about technical or legal texts. This type of error or dilemma can arise in any type of document and is sometimes even more noticeable in (i.e., more damaging to) general or marketing texts.

But, particularly from a linguistic point of view, safe-bet translations can look like valid solutions, which is why they often slip by proofreaders.

What causes safe-bet errors?

Safe-bet errors can be caused by:

  1. Lack of subject knowledge (law, engineering, IT, etc.). Solution: Improve your subject knowledge, either on the fly (if you have the basics) or long-term (preferable).
  2. Lack of client knowledge (i.e., knowledge about the client’s situation, products, jargon, etc.). Solution: Ask the client (this time) and get to know the client’s situation, product, jargon, etc. (for the next time).
  3. Imprecise writing or incomplete information in the source text. Often, though, it’s imprecise or incomplete only to the outsider or uninitiated, which might include the translator, which makes problem type 1 or 2 look like a 3 to the translator. Solution: Get client or someone in the know to clarify.
  4. Lack of source-language knowledge. These may be subtle gaps, but even the most experienced translator will come across them occasionally — as can also occur with the target and (usually) the translator’s native language. Solution: Refer to a dictionary, a native speaker or a another translator.

Professionalism versus fudging

Why is it better to get it wrong than to get caught using a safe bet?

Remember, if it’s A, it’s not B or Y!
A: Correct and apt.
B: Incorrect but not out of place (stylistically, at least). Justified because your research indicated it was the best option.
Y: Incorrect and may sound silly. Difficult to justify.

I’d always go for the most likely option and accept that I may be wrong rather than go with a middle-ground fudge and hope nobody notices.

Even though B is wrong, you can justify it as the best option based on the information you had at hand. It’s harder to justify a safe bet, especially if it involves even just a slight linguistic invention.

Which way do you err?

In this black and white picture I’ve painted, the case for the safe bet doesn’t look so strong.

Of course, things are never that simple. Sometimes including A and B under a broader (but not awkward) Y will not matter and may even be desirable for points of minor importance that get little attention in the source text anyway.

I can also recall a couple of instances in which a fairly literal following of the source text (effectively, a safe bet, as I wasn’t sure of the meaning) turned out to be the right option (not A or B). In these cases, I normally lacked information about the client’s products or situation.

Either way, we all have to err in some direction. Personally, I’d always prefer to err on the side of choosing the option that makes the most sense and even venture to create such an option out of a vague source text at the risk of occasionally over or incorrectly translating a term or point that actually required a literal rendering that escaped me.

Which way do you prefer to err? Or, which way would you prefer someone translating for you to err?

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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