The following questions are frequently asked about translation and
editing. We recommend that you read them in sequence, but you can skip
around the page by clicking on the links.
1. Is a literal translation the best way to ensure accuracy?
2. How can a good literal translation result in a bad misunderstanding?
3. When do I need an editor in addition to a translator?
4. What kind of editing should be done before translation?
5. Why is it cost-effective to edit a document before translation?
Translation involves a source language as a starting point and one or more target languages as the goal. It is a common misconception that the most accurate way to convey the meaning of the original text is to produce a word-for-word ("literal") translation.
You can get an idea of the awkwardness and inaccuracy of a literal translation if you submit a paragraph to a computer for translation and then have the computer translate the result back into English. Computerized translation is currently offered by some search engines on the worldwide web.
The reason why literal translation is an illusory ideal is that a translator cannot change every word of the source language to a precise equivalent in the target language. There are concepts that are more complex in some cultures than in others, and the respective languages will reflect these differences.
For example, some Asian languages have three different words for "rice" to indicate whether it is already cooked in cuisine, stored in a large sack, or still growing in a field. Conversely, the three English verbs "watch", "see", and "look" are united into a single verb in some languages (such as Japanese).
The lack of word-for-word equivalence shown in the preceding examples is the primary cause of computerized translation errors. Human translators can solve this type of problem by understanding the context in which a word is used. The semantic context is sometimes made more complex by the cultural context.
For example, in some Southeast Asian cultures, the concepts of formality and politeness are closely intertwined. If you write the word "informal" in your original text, it is quite possible that it will be translated into a word that also means "impolite." People who read the translation may misunderstand your intent.
For example, if you write:
It might be misunderstood as:
To avoid this misunderstanding, it would be better to write:
In Japan, the instruction "Turn the power on" is considered essential in all operating manuals, including software manuals. In other cultures, such an obvious instruction is considered unnecessary or even insulting. Differences in cultural expectations mean that entire sentences may need to be added to (or removed from) your original document.
Cultural context is an important consideration in the process of localizing a document. However, the success of localization is not entirely a matter of the translator's skill. A good translation requires a clearly written original text.
Translators have to make a lot of micro-decisions, and sometimes the choices can be ambiguous. A phrase that has no clear equivalent in the target language can pose a dilemma for even a highly skilled translator: a literal translation would sound awkward or confusing, but a figurative or creative translation might fail to express the original intent.
Generally, the translation process becomes more time-consuming, more costly, and more prone to error when one or more of the following conditions are present:
If any condition in the preceding list applies to your document, it would be a good idea to have it edited before it is translated.
The primary concern in preparing a document for translation is to reduce ambiguity. Although your original text may be clear to readers who are native speakers of English, some of its sentences probably have grammatical structures and idiomatic expressions that will complicate the translation process.
These complications will be worse if your translator is not a native speaker of English (the source language). This is likely to be the case because there is widespread recognition in the translation industry that localization is generally an easier task for a native speaker of the target language. He or she not only knows the target language's syntax and vocabulary, but also understands its style and nuances. To optimize such a translator's ability to produce a high-quality document, it is first necessary to edit the original text into streamlined, unambiguous English.
Translation errors can often be traced back to misunderstandings caused by word choice in the original text. Many ordinary English words and phrases have multiple meanings that can lead to confusion and, consequently, mistranslation.
For example, using the word "since" as a conjunction can make an instruction ambiguous:
If a translator misunderstands "since" as a preposition meaning "after," the target language version of the instruction will indicate that the log does not need to be started until after a fluctuation has already occurred. The sentence should be edited to:
Streamlining the original text into Global English means making a document more straightforward. Simplifying the syntax, reducing the number of idioms, and adjusting the choice of words are all key ingredients.
Of fundamental importance to this editing process is a global perspective, based on the awareness that other people might not understand some of the expressions that we native speakers of English take for granted.
Translation is an intricate process with a very strong human element. Consistency can be difficult to achieve and even third-party verification of accuracy may be colored by subjective opinions.
As more and more target languages are added, the complexity of verification increases geometrically. After a certain point, it becomes impossible to find any human being who can say with certainty that all of the translations convey the same meaning.
For some documents, such as marketing materials, it is actually advantageous to have variations in meaning for different audiences. Other documents, such as operating instructions, are results-oriented: a translation can be considered successful if it promotes safe, efficient performance.
It is fair to say that most types of documents call for translation that is as faithful as possible to the original meaning and intention. Inaccurate translation of public relations materials, speeches, reports, contracts, or legal proceedings can lead to embarrassment, loss, or even liability.
Editing a document before translation refines and clarifies it so that it can better serve as a central reference point. When all translators have a clear understanding of the original text, they are more likely to produce consistent results. By facilitating faster and more accurate translation, the extra step of editing can reduce costs significantly.
Globalization of the original text also makes a document more user-friendly for people who are compelled to use the English version because they do not know any of the target languages that have been selected for localization. Editing a document into Global English makes it more accessible to millions of people around the world who can read English but are not yet fully fluent in it.
Read more about localization and globalization in the Globally Speaking section of our web site.
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