What makes a good translation?

A few years ago, I argued with a friend over whether research academics were qualified to work as translators. I came across a journal offering a prize for (unpaid) quality translation of prolific academic texts. The journal asserted that researchers know their subdisciplines well and are best placed to translate texts in that field.

On the other hand, my friend argued that such researchers are (mostly) not trained and qualified translators, or even linguists. They haven’t learnt about the process of translation and can’t be expected to do a good job. I sat somewhere in the middle. I felt the journal’s approach was a bit arrogant, and balked at the idea of the journal promoting unpaid translation work (which only suits the minority of professors with a long-term contract in a highly precarised field), but didn’t think a qualification in translation (or similar) was necessary to do it well.

In today’s blog post I sketch my answer to these two questions:

  • What skills does a translator need?
  • Can academic researchers translate texts in their field well?

To do so, I draw on the insights I learnt while training for the CIOL Diploma in Translation. I trained here and the course was based around feedback on several German–English translations completed.

In short, I learnt that the following three points make a good translation:

[disclaimer: these are the basic points I learnt on the course. Most of them form the basis of the marking scheme for the CIOL Diploma in Translation, but different kinds of translation require other skills too, such as research skills.]

(1) A good translation is well-comprehended

On the course, I learnt that comprehension errors are the most serious errors a translator can make. If the content of the text has not been completely understood, then the translator can’t do their job. Dictionaries and glossaries can help, but the translator really needs top-level language skills (a C2 reading level) in the source language. This doesn’t mean that a translator will know every word in the source text, but that with dictionaries and other resources, the meanings in context will be clear.

Academic researcher–translators: Your key strength here is knowing your field well. Comprehension skills are not only general, but also specific to topics and fields, each with their different conventions. If you have a good command of the source language and know the topic well, you are much less likely to make this most serious kind of error.

(2) A good translation is accurate

Different kinds of accuracy errors creep into all translations – no translation is perfect. These accuracy errors can be categorised, as in the table below. You can find a more comprehensive list here. Apparently the most common kind of accuracy error that experienced translators make is with terminology, and so special tools have been developed for handling terminology in translation projects.

What accuracy means also depends on the writing purpose. Getting the tone and style right is key for literary translation, whereas precise terminology could literally be a matter of life or death in a medical translation. Every translation loses and gains something when it is taken out of one language context and placed in another.

Accuracy does not mean translating a text word for word. It’s fine to move parts of sentences around to fit the syntax of the target language, and for word classes and structures to change (English likes to use verbs in places where other languages favour nouns, for example). The key is that the text reads idiomatically for the target audience.

In my experience working directly with academic authors, this is one of the areas where obstacles occasionally arise when asking the author to “check” the translation. Why? Because they may not know the expectations of an Anglo-American target audience or think that a “faithful” word-for-word translation sounds better to them as it looks more like the source text. This depends on the author and the ideas they have about language, and also their vision of what the target text should look like.

Academic researcher–translators: Accuracy is one of the key areas that improves with extensive translation practice. Except for terminology (which you are likely to get right), accuracy is perhaps the main area in which an academic translating a text will slip up. For this reason, I would recommend that academic researchers serious about translation take some kind of training in translation practice, e.g. by preparing for the Diploma in Translation.

(3) A good translation is well-written (fit for purpose)

Writing skills in the target language need to be top-notch. Many translators – including myself – therefore only translate into their first (or dominant) language. Different levels of skill are required, though. A text translated for informative purposes (e.g. a patient history) need not be as well-written as a text translated for publication in a book or museum exhibition. This means that a text translated for informative purposes could reasonably be translated into a person’s second language – but even so, translating in this direction is harder work and the results are often poorer.

For the CIOL Diploma in Translation, you must translate semi-specialised texts in one direction (typically into your first or dominant language). All the texts in genres I have picked (general translation, social science, and literary translation) focus on texts of publishable quality.

Finally, the quality of a professional translation is quite often better than the original, as translators spend their entire working lives writing, whereas it may just be one part of a job that the author of the source text does.

Academic researcher–translators: Those of you who enjoy writing will likely have great writing skills and be able to produce a good quality finished product (although it may still need to be copyedited). Knowing the conventions of your subdiscipline will help you craft sentences nicely and your awareness of the text’s audience is invaluable here.

Type of errorMore details/examples
Consistency errors (writing quality)Using alternative spellings in the same text (e.g. travelled/traveled, competencies/competences). Switching between UK/US usage.
Mistranslations (accuracy)A big mistranslation could be a comprehension error. A small one could be an accuracy error, e.g. getting a tense wrong, mistaking an adjective for a comparative adjective. tenses, comparatives. Calques can be applied too often when translating quickly (e.g. kapitulacija>capitulation, when “surrender” may fit better, or translating Formulierung as formulation when “way of describing” might be better).
Nuance and emphasis (accuracy)Sometime a small word (e.g. upravo) is used for emphasis. On other occasions, sentence structure creates emphasis (“It is not you who has failed” versus “You have not failed”).
Omissions (accuracy)Missing small words out like jedoch, gesamt, upravo, tek, ipak.
Over and under translations (accuracy)überrascht as astonished, when surprised may be better.
Readability errors (writing quality)Compare: “It is precisely older people…”/”Older people, in particular,…”
Register errors (accuracy) E.g. saying “good relations reigned between the two parties” in a conversational, informal text.
Terminology errors (accuracy)Translating Bundestagswahl as “general elections” rather than “federal elections”.
Usage errors, i.e. not following target language rules (writing quality)Incorrectly placed commas, spelling mistakes, not translating punctuation if used differently in the source language.

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