Rumination 5: Word for a word

What does accuracy mean to you? This concept is something I’m constantly getting into disagreement with other Thai to English translators about. Why don’t I see face to face with most other translators in my language pair? Well, it all falls down to one simple reality … there aren’t many other native English, Thai to English translators in the world! (I can only name a handful).

There are a number of factors that influence one’s perception of ‘accurate’ and a lot falls down to the target audience as well, but a simple way to picture this is to use a scale of bias. When I translate into English, I’m translating into the language that I’ve spoken with my mother since birth. It’s my ‘mother tongue’, my native language, and no matter how good I get at Thai, no matter how much I study and improve my Thai knowledge and understanding, it won’t get better than my English. I translate from the source ‘Thai’ into the target ‘English’ and I can admit that I have a target language bias.

Accuracy in translation is the communication of ideas, not the rewriting of text.

Target language bias is good when the audience for our translations don’t have any knowledge or understanding of the source language (that’s why we get hired to translate, isn’t it?). Look at this third party review of one of my translations (completed with my team, with three separate steps: translation/editing/quality control).

Adding value to translations 13/08/21

By prioritising the quality of writing the target text, we created something that was better than the original – to the extent that the source appears like a bad translation of our work! Their reviewer continued by saying that our translation captures the whole idea of the Thai original and writes it more smoothly while keeping the core ideas of the text. This is our duty as a translator, we must fully understand the source and communicate the intended meaning into our own language. In this sense, the reader does never even have to realise the text is a translation. Accuracy in translation is the communication of ideas, not the rewriting of text.

I have been getting a lot of work from Australian clients lately, particularly since advertising my services using our new technology, AcudocX. By building customer awareness and recognition of my brand, I’ve also had many customers reach out to me, completely dissatisfied with the services provided by other translators (mostly concerning the costs they were charged but sometimes about quality). They often share the original translation they were sent, with the other practitioner’s stamp and details on it and I’m able to clearly see what they meant. Without giving away any confidential information, have a look at the ‘certification’ of this other translator below.

A word-for-word translation?

“… certify that this is a true and accurate word-for-word translation …”

Back to levels of bias, obviously someone who considers a word-for-word translation accurate has a different perception of accuracy to me. Here we see a clear example of source-language bias. The client said the work was unreadable and didn’t make sense but the translator insisted it was ‘accurate’ and faithfully put their stamp on it. Now, going back to the first example I gave with the reviewer impressed about the quality of our work, imagine if the source-biased translator had completed the job. They would have argued that their translation matched the source ‘word-for-word’! If the source is written badly, do you think that means the translation should match it? There are good and bad writers in every language, I often see badly written Thai but I refuse to match my writing style to theirs!

I admit, there are times when a literal word for word translation is required. When a customer requests a ‘back-translation’ they want to ensure the translation has included all the required details and expect it to be completed literally, word for word. This is the only time I can justify the above. However, when the translator has source-bias, they place an excessive amount of importance on the source ‘words’ and believe they need to translate every word that was written at the expense of target language readability and often understanding.

There are also times that target-language bias can go too far, but we call that ‘transcreation’ these days and the customer knows what they’re getting – a work completely rewritten to suit the target audience, based off the original source language document.

At the end of the day, it’s important for a translator to fully understand the expectations and requirements of the audience for their work. Creativity shouldn’t be inserted into a scientific translation, for example, but that doesn’t mean to translate word-for-word. There is an inherent advantage when translators work into their native language. Customers should choose a translator whose quality of writing is excellent and sounds natural, if that’s what they intend to pay for. I suppose it’s good to ask for examples of their writing before committing to any particular translator (I just realised I can direct my customers right here!). While our certification sets a good standard, there is more to a translator than just a stamp.

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