Should translations be literal?

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. 🙂

Written by Rob

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

14 comments to “Should translations be literal?”
  1. Funnily enough, on the day you published this blogpost I attending a two-day training course here in Paris for my target clients (heads of investor relations and such) and a panel moderator said exactly the same thing. That is, his (large French) company had ceased outsourcing translation work because the texts they got back were unusable, or needed so much “fixing” in house that it was faster to try to cobble together something with their own multilingual staff.
    That’s a serious wake-up call for suppliers — or should be. I made the point that once prices are driven down too low there is no way on earth that the IR guys’ service providers can provide anything usable. And I saw some heads nodding, so I’d say that’s an argument that needs repeating. I’m freelance myself, but there were two bulk providers in the room who were pitching to this same group as best they could. Big hitch: they buy work at €0.10 per word, whereas the sheer technical knowledge and writing skills and ongoing tracking of complex topics required to do the work is such that savvy clients pay skilled translators four times that. So that might be a case to make to Sarah should you ever find yourself on a road trip again.

    • That is a coincidence, and a bit of a worry—our toughest competition may come from low quality suppliers burning the fingers of clients we’ll find difficult to convince to give us, as an industry, a second chance.

      And yes, quality issues aside (i.e., the translator is competent), I can imagine that savvy clients will almost always find any translation not the result of the translator working closely with them to be at least a little off the mark.

      Anyway, food for thought for the next Sarah-like opportunity that pops up. 🙂

      Thanks for your comment, Chris.

      • I’m not sure I see the lowballers as real competition, but they are a reminder of something that Robin Bonthrone has pointed out: translators who are genuinely specialized should be selling to user departments, not to the purchasing department. The latter are totally, utterly on the same wave length as the bulk vendors; they don’t care about quality, they care about timing & (low) prices. Whereas if you are interacting with somebody who actually uses the texts you produce, the quality bar will be set higher (and the price range, too). Far greater scope for interesting and lucrative work.

  2. I’d say, it depends. I’ve been working as a technical translator for 36 years. I work a lot in the aerospace business, and being (or not) “literal” may mean in some cases the difference between life and death. No fantasies here, not if you want to prevent an aircraft from crashing.

    On the other hand, I also translate websites, and here the story is very different – you need to localize as well as translated, and a literal translation might sometimes be outright offensive for the consumer market that the website is targeting. Remember the motto of a certain airline “Fly in leather”? In Spanish, if you inadvertently add an “s” to the literal translation, it means “Fly naked”. And even if this is not the case, it sounds weird.

    So it depends. In certain cases it is essential to be literal. In other cases, it’s actually counter-productive. But only a real professional translator will be able to make such distinction and adapt his work accordingly. Oh, and those are not cheap.

    • I agree: Yes, it does depend, and no, good translators aren’t cheap. 🙂

      It might be worth clarifying that when Sarah says “literal” she means the incorrect translation of straightforward turns of phrase (maybe like that naked/leather blunder) and probably also sloppy writing from lazily following the source structure too closely, which is different to literal translation as a strategy for dealing with non-equivalent terminology.

      Because, of course, at the word level and particularly in technical texts, translating literally and using other solutions (glosses, explanations, footnotes, etc.), no matter how ugly, is perfectly valid and often required for non-equivalent terms that the reader must know.

      However, even when accuracy is paramount, I don’t think we’re ever justified in producing a clunky translation or even one that just reads very differently from similar target-language texts (it might be hard to understand, but as long as it’s only hard to understand in a way similar texts usually are, it’s OK 🙂 ). I’d argue that to be faithful to the source in terms of purpose and meaning, you often have to stray, sometimes wildly, from the source structure. If we make a text hard to read or understand by translating the structure too literally, we are doing a disservice to our client and the reader by providing them with an inaccurate translation that may be misleading (even if not life-threatening).

      You probably weren’t referring exactly to that, though. Technical translators are normally very good at getting complicated messages across in straightforward language (NB: straightforward NOT awkward and literal) and have no qualms about doing so and even chopping and changing the source structure. In this respect, I think legal translators need to take a leaf out of the technical translator’s book and not be scared make the text their own. Legal translation has traditionally been very staunch about deferring to the source text in the name of faithfulness at the cost of everything else, and while the focus has shifted to place greater importance on purpose and audience, you still see this bias lingering on.

    • Apologize for being a little bit off topic but the 36 years in business got my attention.

      I just started out as a translator a few months ago and I’m always asking myself the question: what’s the highest wage I could get to in a month by doing this. Is it worth it? Does it have any future?

      Now, seeing that you have so many years of experience, I’m really really curious what was the highest fee you ever received in a month for your work.

      Hope I get an answer!


      Ana Miller

  3. Pingback: Weekly favorites (Nov 8-14) | Adventures in Freelance Translation

  4. Hello

    I agree broadly with the article but there may be a certain type of exception with social conventions

    English has become the international language and many non-English companies are forced to adopt it in order to communicate.

    But that does not mean that they want to adopt the English culture that goes with it and they may well be communicating in English with another non English speaking company.

    Correspondence that starts off with ‘Dear Friends’ or finishes with ‘If Allah wishes’ (extreme examples here but there are many others) may well shock us English speakers but I wouldn’t write it off in all circumstances

    • Definitely. If that’s what the circumstances require, so be it. As long as using unusual terminology or structure is not just the result of sloppy translating because we don’t know any better, I wouldn’t write anything off.

  5. Hello Rob,

    Thank you for the reply. No, it’s not my website but the company I work for currently. Why asking?

    Kind regards,

    • Just curiosity. People usually link to their own websites or profiles. It would have been impressive if that was your website and company having only started a few months ago. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.