This summer, quite unexpectedly, I got the chance to hear about a direct client’s experience buying translations. A friend of mine and his family were visiting, and while I was driving them back to where they were staying in Barcelona, my friend’s wife, Sarah, who works for a multinational company in Paris, asked me: “What’s the story with translations? Are they supposed to be literal?”
When you start out as a translator, the adage that a good translation shouldn’t look, read or sound like a translation quickly becomes a given and just about always the goal. After a while, you even slip into thinking that everyone, even non-translators, has thought about, knows and accepts this seemingly self-evident truth. However, Sarah’s question reminded me that this is probably not the case.
But why not? You’d think translation buyers would also quickly come to the conclusion that a non-authentic sounding translation is a bad one. Well, maybe they do. At first, at least—until they find only evidence to the contrary, as apparently occurred in Sarah’s case, which is why she was asking me the question. (If truth be told, Sarah had probably already written off the translation profession as pointless, but full credit to her for managing to tactfully reframe her opinion into a question to give someone working as a translator, me, a chance for some redemption. I am, after all, an old friend of her husband.)
As Sarah went on to explain, her company had on occasions commissioned translations but stopped doing so as they found them so terribly bad. They were too literal. “We just about always had to rewrite them”, said Sarah. (This is, of course, not something all buyers of translations can do. Sarah’s company can because some of the staff are native speakers of the target language, English, and all have at least notions to a perfect command of the source language, French. Although, even if possible, this is not ideal as it means staff have to waste time they should be devoting to their usual duties on fixing up translations.)
Thinking of the problems a translator can face when working on a text for a company they don’t have any background on because they’ve been hired through an agency (probably a fairly typical scenario), I asked whether the problem was with technical terms related to her company that an outsider might understandably be unaware of. However, this wasn’t the case. The problem they’d found was that everyday French expressions had been translated literally into nonsensical English.
No surprises here, I suppose. As in any industry, there will always be providers of lower quality services. Sarah’s company had just happened to come across provider(s)? of lower quality translations.
Unfortunately, my conversation with Sarah didn’t take place under the best of circumstances. It was a short trip, and the traffic and the toddler happily babbling away in the car meant that I didn’t get to ask Sarah about what type of translation providers they’d hired or how often they’d hired them. I have no idea about these things, but they’re not what struck me as the most important. What I found interesting was the initial question.
Even though the buyer of the translations knew that the translations were useless and had to be rewritten, they weren’t sure about what a good translation should look like. Because of the low quality of the translations they’d bought, they came to the conclusion that, “Okay, what we bought is a translation. It might be of some use to somebody, but it’s not what we need. Let’s do what we can in-house.”
But, of course, they were wrong. A good translation is exactly what they needed. They just hadn’t come across one. Good translations should never be nonsensical and should always read like a similar text written originally in the target language. And, if you can get someone to do it externally (i.e., a professional translator), you can let your staff get on with whatever it is that they do best, which is a far more sensible use of resources.
Incidentally, if you are a translation buyer and want some tips on how to buy translations, a good place to start is Chris Durban’s Translation. Geting it Right. A guide to buying translations. (PDF).
By the way, some of the names and places in this story have been changed to protect the anonymity of my friends. Some of the details have probably also been changed but that’s just because I’d forgotten them and had to fill in the gaps. 🙂