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Thursday, December 15, 2005

Good Translations from Poor Originals?

It is accepted by the translator community as self-evident that the translation should accurately reflect the original, possibly in both form and content. So what happens if the translator receives a poorly written original or one containing ambiguities and even outright factual errors (as opposed to typos)? Is the translator supposed to produce good English out of poor German, Russian, or Chinese? Are the ambiguities to be left in the target text (when this is possible) on the assumption that they may have been intentional? Is the translator supposed to correct the errors of the original? How far should the translator go in his or her research to ensure that the original is factually correct?

If the translator is in a position to contact the author of the original, they can discuss certain aspects of the text, but this is not always possible. The text may have reached the translator via a middleman or may have been extracted from a publication whose author is no longer available. A translator's note addressed to the client does not always solve the problem, because the client may be more clueless about the text than the translator. On the other hand, an error left in the text may come back to haunt the translator later.

How should the problem of poor ST be handled?


Blogger Julio A. Juncal said...

Like many translators, I have faced the problem of poor ST's. Sometimes, they were due to the auhor's unfamiliarity with the source language--a common occurrence in documentation of international organizations. I think the target text should not the reflect the poor quality of the original. OTOH, I have always posited (a) that the author has the right to be obscure and (b) that the translator should write in self-defence. As a translator, it is difficult for me to ascertain whether the opacity of the ST is intentional or not. Also, I should draft the translation in such a way that it conveys what the text appears to say. I should mediate the TT in a way that would allow me to respond to criticism of my drafting (self-defence). Factual errors are another kettle of fish. Some are easy to correct (dates, for instance). Others are not amenable to the basic research a translator can perform. The latter are to be conveyed to the author and left untouched in the translation. At the UN, it is often possible to bring these factual errors to the attention of what is quaintly called a "submitting officer," (SO) i.e., the staff member who sent up the document for translation. It is the duty of the SO to issue a corrigendum. I will always remember one SO whose secretary authoritatively announced to me that he was not in the habit of issuing corrigenda. To what I replied that it was inconsequential to me as I would leave the factual uncorrected in the TT. About 30 minutes later, a corrigendum duly arrived!

1:53 PM  
Blogger Harry J. Huang,Macquarie University/Seneca College said...

Respect the Basic Rule of Translation

Harry J. Huang (Macquarie University/Seneca College)

The basic rule of translation should not be broken. A poorly written original deserves a rendition that reads like poorly written text. Firstly, the original ambiguity should be preserved. Any attempt to interpret and/or specify it, for example, may result in further loss or addition of meaning. Secondly, ST factual mistakes should be translated as they are. A “translator’s note” suffices to indicate the responsibility of such a mistake. In the final analysis, the ST author is responsible for the misunderstanding or embarrassment caused by such mistakes.

My 25 years of translating, teaching and research experience convince me that if you have other work to do, it serves you well to stay away from poorly written ST containing factual mistakes. Or, if you really have to translate badly written text, remember to add appropriate “translator’s notes” where possible, but not your name.

12:59 AM  
Blogger Picus said...

I translated a technical document once, that was first translated from Japanese to English and Chinese to English.
Obviously, the translation was not done by a native professional, so imagine the errors I found.
I tried to "correct" the evident errors but needed to be in contact with the client in order to clarify several words and paragraphs.

2:07 PM  
Blogger Agnes@Better Text said...

Let's not assume we all agree on a "Basic Rule of Translation"

This is the type of moralizing approach that doesn't help guide working translators.

Translation history tells us that what is propounded as "the Rule" by which the act of translation should be guided has largely been historically and culturally determined. The debate between whether "the Rule" should be "fidelity to the source text", or "readability in the target language" is a very old one. And last time I checked, it hasn't yet been resolved.

The problem is compounded by those who claim to equate adherence to fidelity with the only "ethical" approach and those who claim that the debate is easily resolved if the translator maintains a "balance". Both of these positions place the working translator between a rock and a hard place, since the extent to which choices are considered overly-foreignizing or overly-naturalizing is subjective.

But just as the composition of the source text doesn't happen in a vacuum, so the composition of the target text doesn't either. The point of it all is communication. That's what translation theorists refer to as the functional approach.

So, ask yourself, what is the source text supposed to do? What does the author want to accomplish?

Does the author of the source text want to confuse their reader and make themselves look incompetent?


If you contribute to this effect are you acting "ethically" as a translator?

Also have you ever tried to translate something you don't understand?

Isn't the act of reading itself an act of interpretation? What is the difference between comprehension and interpretation?

You can see the many "holes" in the fidelity theory.

So what do you do about a badly written source text?
It all depends: are you translating into a dominant or a minority language, how good is your relationship with the client, what are the project time constraints, is it an authored or a non-authored text, etc. These are extra-textual constraints that working translators have to deal with every day.

And moralizing positions don't help us deal with them. We have to be aware of them.

Mr. Huang's advice on avoiding badly written source texts and definitely not signing your name is good advice, and I do agree with it. Although adding notes isn't always possible.

In addition, what is considered good writing might be vastly different in the source and target cultures, but that's another can of worms...

3:46 AM  
Blogger Agnes@Better Text said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:05 AM  

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