Don’t say it’s a good translation. If you can’t use it, it’s crap!

It’s amazing the insight you get when you speak to users of translations. The other day I was speaking to a friend of mine who runs a business selling healthcare products in Spain and the UK. He had a very interesting story to tell me about his indirect involvement with the translation for a product he is going to start distributing, apparently manufactured in Germany and sold worldwide.

As a distributor, David doesn’t always get much of a say on product packaging and documentation, much less any translations used. He does, of course, know his sector very well and even has a lot of experience writing Web copy and product descriptions (in English, his native language), so he knows what should be written on the side of the packet and in any instructions.

On this occasion, David decided to give the company some feedback on their translation, which he thought wasn’t very usable, sending them back a heavily corrected version.

Now, what David gave the company was actually very useful feedback, if you think about it. He knows the field, the language, and even how to write about the field in the language. He also has a vested interest in making sure the English is spot-on or at least not too big a liability.

Anyway, his feedback was given quite a defensive reception, both by the manufacturer and the translation supplier, although, in the end, they did exercise some common sense and take some of David’s suggestions on board.

I suppose this kind of thing happens all the time. In this case, the original German was translated to English before being translated into all the other languages based on the English version.

I never got to see the translation. Healthcare is not my field, so I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to read it the way David does. But, in David’s words, the translations were “grammatically or linguistically correct but not very understandable and a little confusing”. At the very least, not what you’d expect.

What most interests me about this story is David’s reaction.

David knows what the English should have looked like and could have (and did, in fact) write a better version. But even then, after deciding the translation wasn’t very useful, he was willing to concede that the translation was correct, “linguistically”, and that the translator had done their job. After all, they had “correctly translated all the words”.

This is an unfortunate perception for the translation industry and a very damaging one for translators who set out to do our job as it should be done, i.e., to provide usable and useful translations that you don’t have to rewrite.

As I explained to David, and as I always explain to him whenever the subject of translation comes up (he gets English to Spanish translations on a regular basis), if the translation is not fit for purpose, no matter how linguistically accurate or faithful it might look, you’re not getting a “good translation”, and you shouldn’t accept it or even call it that.

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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