“But that’s what it says in the source text!”

George Orwell

George Orwell: "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."

The road to translation hell is paved with slavish adherence to the source text. Some translators follow a word-for-word approach in which every word of the source text has a corresponding word in the translation: if there are six words in the source text, there must be six words in the translation. In less extreme, but no less inane, situations, a translator will use a word from a dictionary that results in an unnatural, and even an unintelligible, translation. When the translator is asked why they wrote this horrible sentence, the response is often, “that’s what it says in the source text.” This phrase reminds me of the famous and sometimes controversial six rules for writing well in George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language: “vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

In contrast, the holy grail of most professional translation is a translation that reads like a document written in the target language by an educated native speaker. That’s a mouthful, but it means that the translation should read naturally. The reader should not be able to tell that it is a translation. Creating such a natural translation is easier said than done, and I could go on at great length about the whys and wherefores, and yes there are other issues, but all other things being equal, if the translation reads naturally, then the translator did a great job, and this can be your measure of quality even if you do not know the source language.

About Paul Flint

American-born Tokyoite who loves the challenges of doing business in Japan. Other passions include sailing and long-board surfing on the Shonan Coast, barbequing on the balcony, playing classical guitar, playing with his children, and on and on and on. . . .
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