The quality of translation

Throughout my career in the language industry, I have always heard about quality. One agency promises to provide the ‘best quality’, another complains about the ‘poor quality’ of the translated text… But what exactly is quality in translation?

When asked such a question, the first answer that comes to mind is: a quality translation is one that respects the source text. That’s great! It’s hard to disagree… although we can discuss the sourcing approach… but we’re not getting very far. It’s a bit like the snake biting its own tail, and the question of quality, or rather, what constitutes a good translation, remains.

Translation theories

The various theories of translation have been trying to answer this question for a long time, but they take different paths without establishing an absolute truth, while each contributing its own stone to the edifice.

The Tel Aviv school

The Tel Aviv school is a sociological approach to translation, and it tells us that it is the social framework that defines what is translatable and what is not. While I cannot deny that the translator’s socio-cultural background is of considerable importance (it greatly influences his or her specialities, vocabulary, style, etc.), the very idea of defining elements as untranslatable puts me off. It also poses a major quality problem when dealing with this type of element: non-translation, omission, etc.

The interpretative trend

This is the famous theory of meaning. It implies that the meaning conveyed takes precedence. Language only has the role of conveying the idea and the letter can even be an obstacle to communication. While I agree with this assertion on a perfectly theoretical level, the fact remains that the word cannot be forgotten. The letter is sometimes more than important: after all, clients don’t give us glossaries for our own pleasure. With the exception of a few neologisms and acronyms, we normally know how to look up what we need in a dictionary. But trying to translate a slogan or a poem with just the idea and without the words is tantamount to betraying the source text. And no: translating is not a betrayal!

The hermeneutic approach

Based on the work of Georges Steiner, this approach sees translation as an exact art rather than a science. This approach focuses on the author’s “meaning”, which the translator must convey. It therefore keeps in mind that the idea comes first, but does not discard the word. On the other hand, by focusing on the “meaning” it can include a bias, since the translator is then interpreting the author’s thoughts, with the risks of over-translation that this can entail.

The linguistic approach

This is the theory that tells us that any text must be considered from the point of view of the fundamental units: the word, the phrase and the sentence. There’s no denying this, and our CAT tools encourage us to consider the word (through glossaries and as a measure of volume) and the sentence (segments) as the basis of our work. But adopting this approach in its entirety is also highly problematic: what happens to context and sub-text? What synonyms should we use, and in what cases? If word transposition were enough, machine translation would no longer be a problem, and statistical approaches would do just fine. Modern engines, based on neural networks and Deep Learning, are now applying sentiment analysis to improve translation, but this cannot be seen in the context of a minimal unit such as the word.

The literary approach

This approach turns the translator into an author. Translation is no longer a linguistic operation, but a literary artistic operation. Words are charged with energy, and it is this energy that the translator must convey. While this is true enough for editorial and literary texts, it will be difficult to adapt this idea to a technical or legal context. In any case, this approach provides us with few guidelines for ensuring ideal quality, and seems to rely instead on a kind of instinct and inspiration, which are certainly very present in reality, but which cannot be included in quality processes.

The semiotic approach

In this approach, three elements must come together: a sign, an object and an interpreter. The sign is the word, the object is the meaning conveyed, and the interpreter is the translator with his or her prism of cultural adaptation. As you can see, I tend to favour this theory, although the others are not to be dismissed, and this one is also incomplete and still doesn’t solve our quality problem.

The commercial approach

Don’t look for a bibliographical reference, there’s nothing academic about this approach, it’s a figment of my imagination, or rather of my experience. But why? Quite simply because we’re talking about professional translation, and in this context the only thing that ultimately counts (finances aside) is customer satisfaction. So I’ll say it loud and clear: a quality translation is one that suits the customer!

While all the approaches defined above have their positive and negative elements, we can see that the recipient is generally forgotten and, as with any product or service, it is the recipient who counts. So it’s a question of adapting the translation to the customer’s requirements so that it is considered to be of high quality. It’s obvious, but we often tend to forget it. Not all customers want the same thing, so there is not one quality but many, the only valid and good one being the one expected by the customer at a given moment.

Those who simply want to understand the document, those who want to adapt it, those who want to render it simply or accurately using the vocabulary of the brand they work for… they may all start from the same text, but they have very different expectations. In each case, a different translation can be produced and judged to be good and of high quality, because it meets the client’s expectations.

This is why I insist on having as much information as possible about the context and use of the translation when drawing up a proposal. My aim is simply to provide the most appropriate quality.

What do you consider to be a quality translation?

Featured photo by Brodie Vissers found on Burst

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