What makes a good translation?

Mon 12 Feb 2018
Posted by: Sam Pileggi

Flags in the hand


There is a bit of a myth surrounding the translation industry and a question I get asked quite a lot is, “So, you just translate each word in the foreign language into English?” And my reply is usually something like, “Well, I could, but it would sound rubbish”.

No one wants a rubbish translation, but what makes a good one? In this blog post, Bernadette Roach from IOE&IT Business Member AST Language Services will look at how professional translators, like those at AST, achieve high-quality translations for their clients.


Respecting the meaning

So why can’t we just translate each word literally? The answer is that other languages simply don’t say things the way we do: ‘je m’appelle Brian’ isn’t really ‘I call myself Brian’ but ‘my name is Brian’. A literal translation from Russian would be ‘to me there are 33 years’ instead of ‘I’m 33 years old’… And idioms are even more troublesome. Take the Italian phrase in bocca al lupo! (literally ‘in the mouth of the wolf!’) and its Russian equivalent ni pukha, ni pera! (literally ‘neither fur nor feather!’). These are actually both ways of wishing someone good luck – and are no less strange than the English expression ‘break a leg!’. Instead of taking each word or phrase at face value, the translator understands the meaning as a whole and thinks about how he or she might write that in normal, natural English. So here, a good translation means the same as the original text.


Respecting the author

One of the first things a translator has to consider when translating a text is what the author of the text is getting at. Who are they addressing (consumers, suppliers, specialists, the general public…)? How are they talking (formal, informal, persuasive, creative or a mixture)? What are they trying to say (opinions, facts, instructions, entertainment)? The combination of these features in any given text needs to be mirrored in the translation, which needs to have the same effect on the new audience as it would on the original audience. In this sense, a good translation has the same effect as the original author intended.


Respecting the client

Besides the author, the other person a translator has to bear in mind is the client, who may have certain preferences that require a translator to change their approach to a translation. This might be the use of certain tools, research or specific words and terms. As a part of maintaining their corporate image, companies often have a defined style guide to ensure consistency across all of their (translated) texts. Although this style may differ from a translator’s natural way of writing, it’s nonetheless their duty to implement the client’s wishes in the translation process. So, we can see that a good translation respects the client’s preferences and makes them happy!

Invisible translator

All of these steps so far aim to create a translation which retains the original meaning of the text, mirrors the author’s intentions and represents the client in the way they want. After taking so much care to preserve the originality of a text, the last thing a translator wants to do is shatter this illusion of originality by drawing attention to the fact that the text is actually a translation. It should read fluidly and naturally with no mistakes or awkward structures. This means a good translator is an invisible translator and a good translation doesn’t seem like a translation at all!


So we’ve seen that there’s quite a bit more to translation than just translating each word literally, and hopefully this blog post has given you an insight into the work involved in creating a good translation and keeping readers – and clients – happy!