8 The user's view
Or again, if the translation is of a literary classic, the user may be a teacher or
student in a class that is reading and discussing the text. If the class is taught in a
mother-tongue or comparative literature department, "reliability" may mean that
the users agree to act as if the translation really were the original text. For this
purpose a translation that reads as if it had originally been written in the target
language will probably suffice. If the class is an upper-division or graduate course
taught in a modern-language or classics department, "reliability" may mean that the
translation follows the exact syntactic contours of the original, and thus helps
students to read a difficult text in a foreign language. For this purpose, various "cribs"
or "interlinears" are best — like those New Testament translations published for the
benefit of seminary students of Greek who want to follow the original Greek text
word for word, with the translation of each word printed directly under the word
Or if the translation is of advertising copy, the user may be the marketing
department in the mother company or a local dealer, both of whom will presumably
expect the translation "reliably" to sell products or services without making
impossible or implausible or illegal claims; or it may be prospective customers, who
may expect the translation to represent the product or service advertised reliably,
in the sense that, if they should purchase one, they would not feel that the translation
had misrepresented the actual service or product obtained.
As we saw above, this discussion of a text's reliability is venturing into the
territory traditionally called "accuracy" or "equivalence" or "fidelity." These terms
are in fact shorthand for a wide variety of reliabilities that govern the user's external
perspectives on translation. There are many different types of textual reliability;
there is no single touchstone for a reliable translation, certainly no single simple
formula for abstract semantic (let alone syntactic) "equivalence" that can be applied
easily and unproblematically in every case. All that matters to the non-translating
user is that the translation be reliable in more or less the way s/he expects
(sometimes unconsciously): accurate or effective or some combination of the two;
painfully literal or easily readable in the target language or somewhere in the middle;
reliable for her or his specific purposes.
A text that meets those demands will be called a "good" or "successful"
translation, period, even if another user, with different expectations, might consider
it bad or unsuccessful; a text considered a failure by some users, because it doesn't
meet their reliability needs, might well be hailed as brilliant, innovative, sensitive,
or highly accurate by others.
It is perhaps unfortunate, but probably inevitable, that the norms and standards
appropriate for one group of users or use situations should be generalized to apply
to all. Because some users demand literal translations, for example, the idea spreads
that a translation that is not literal is no translation at all; and because some users
demand semantic (sense-for-sense) equivalence, the idea spreads that a translation
that charts its own semantic path is no translation at all.
The user's view 9
Thus a free retelling of a children's classic may be classified as an "adaptation"
rather than a translation; and an advertising translation that deviates strikingly from
the original in order to have the desired impact on target readers or viewers (i.e.,
selling products or services) may be thought of as a "new text" rather than as an
Each translation user, limited to the perspective of her or his own situational
needs, may quite casually fall into the belief that those needs aren't situational at all,
indeed aren't her or his needs at all, but simply the nature of translation itself. All
translation is thus-and-such — because this translation needs to be, and how different
can different translations be? The fact that they can be very different indeed is often
lost on users who believe their own expectations to be the same as everyone else's.
This mistaken belief is almost certainly the source of the quite widespread notion
that "fidelity," in the sense of an exact one-to-one correspondence between original
and translation, is the only goal of translation. The notion arises when translation
is thought of exclusively as a product or commodity (rather than as an activity or
process), and when the reliability of that product is thought of narrowly in terms
of exact correspondence between texts (rather than as a whole spectrum of possible
Reliably translated texts cover a wide range from the lightly edited to the
substantially rewritten, with the "accurate" or "faithful" translation somewhere in
the middle; there is no room in the world of professional translation for the
theoretical stance that only straight sense-for-sense translation is translation,
therefore as a translator I should never be expected to edit, summarize, annotate,
or re-create a text.
While some effort at user education is probably worthwhile, it is usually easier
for translators simply to shift gears, find out (or figure out) what the user wants or
needs or expects, and provide that — without attempting to enlighten the user about
the variability and volatility of such expectations. Many times clients' demands are
unreasonable, unrealistic, even impossible — as when the marketing manager of a
company going international demands that an advertising campaign in fourteen
different languages be identical to the original, and that the translators in all fourteen
languages show that this demand has been met by providing literal backtranslations
of their work. Then the translators have to decide whether they are willing to
undertake the job at all; and if so, whether they can figure out a way to do it that
satisfies the client without quite meeting her or his unreasonable demands.
For the hard fact is that translators, with all their internal knowledge, can rarely
afford to ignore the external perspectives of non-translators, who are, after all, the
source of our income. As Anthony Pym (1993: 149) notes wryly, in conversation
with a client it makes little sense to stress the element of creative interpretation
present in all translation; this will only create misunderstandings. From the client's
external point of view, "creative interpretation" spells flagrant distortion of the
original, and thus an unreliable text; from the translator's internal point of view,
10 The user's view
Types of text reliability
The translation follows the original word for word, or as close to that ideal as
possible. The syntactic structure of the source text is painfully evident in the
The translation reads fairly fluently but has a slightly alien feel. One can tell,
reading it, that it is a translation, not an original work.
The translation is so accessible and readable for the target-language reader as
to seem like an original in the target language. It never makes the reader stop
and reflect that this is in fact a translation.
The translation covers the main points or "gist" of the original.
The translation unpacks or unfolds the hidden complexities of the original,
exploring at length implications that remain unstated or half-stated in the original.
The translation summarizes some passages briefly while commenting closely on
others. The passages in the original that most concern the user are unpacked; the
less important passages are summarized.
The translation recasts the original so as to have the desired impact on an
audience that is substantially different from that of the original; as when an adult
text is adapted for children, a written text is adapted for television, or an
advertising campaign designed to associate a product with sophistication uses
entirely different images of sophistication in the source and target languages.
The translation recasts the original so as to hide its meaning or message from one
group while still making it accessible to another group, which possesses the key.
The user's view 11
"creative interpretation" signals the undeniable fact that all text-processing involves
some degree of interpretation and thus some degree of creativity, and beyond that,
the translator's sense that every target language is more or less resistant to his or
When accuracy alone is wide of the mark
(by Michael Benis)
Accuracy is essential to a good translation, but it cannot guarantee that a text
will be effective.
Writing practices vary greatly between countries for everything from technical
manuals to speeches and ads. Meaning that reader expectations also differ,
causing the clarity and effectiveness of the text to suffer if it is not rewritten to suit.
You gain significant benefits, including cost-efficiency, when this is done at the
same time as the translation. But most important of all, you can be sure the
rewriting will not take the meaning too far away from the original - as in a game
of "chinese whispers."
This naturally costs more than a "straight translation." But when you consider
that product differentiation is so often image-based in today's mature markets, it
is an investment that far outweighs the potential losses.
Few things impact on your image as much as the effectiveness of your
communications. Make sure they are in safe hands.
The translator's reliability
But the text is not the only important element of reliability for the user; the
translator too must be reliable.
Notice that this list is closely related to the traditional demand that the translator
be "accurate," and indeed contains that demand within it, under "Attention to detail,"
but that it is a much more demanding conception of reliability than merely
the expectation that the translator's work be "correct." The best synonym for the
translator's reliability would not be "correctness" but "professionalism": the reliable
translator in every way comports himself or herself like a professional. A client that
asks for a summary and receives a "correct" or "faithful" translation will not call the
translator reliable — in fact will probably not call the translator ever again. A sensitive
and versatile translator will recognize when a given task requires something besides
straight "accuracy" — various forms of summary or commentary or adaptation,
various kinds of imaginative re-creation — and, if the client has not made these
instructions explicit, will confirm this hunch before beginning work.
12 The user's view
Aspects of translator reliability
Reliability with regard to the text
1 Attention to detail
The translator is meticulous in her attention to the contextual and collocational
nuances of each word and phrase she uses.
2 Sensitivity to the user's needs
The translator listens closely to the user's special instructions regarding the type of
translation desired, understands those instructions quickly and fully, and strives to
carry them out exactly and flexibly.
The translator does not simply "work around" words she doesn't know, by using
a vague phrase that avoids the problem or leaving a question mark where the
word would go, but does careful research, in reference books and Internet
databases, and through phone calls, faxes, and e-mail inquiries.
The translator checks her work closely, and if there is any doubt (as when she
translates into a foreign language) has a translation checked by an experf before
delivery to the client. (The translator also knows when there is any doubt.)
Reliability with regard to the client
The translator is versatile enough to translate texts outside her area of
specialization, out of languages she doesn't feel entirely competent in (always
having such work checked, of course), in manners she has never tried. (The
translator also knows when she can handle a novel task and when something is
simply beyond her abilities and needs to be politely refused.)
The translator knows her own abilities and schedule and working habits well
enough to make realistic promises to clients or agencies regarding delivery dates
and times, and then keeps those promises; or, if pressing circumstances make it
impossible to meet a deadline, calls the client or agency and renegotiates the time
frame or arranges for someone else to finish the job.
The translator is friendly and helpful on the phone or in person, is pleasant to speak
or be with, has a sense of humor, offers helpful advice (such as who to call for that
one page of Estonian or Urdu), doesn't offer unhelpful advice, etc.
The user's view 13
The translator will not disclose confidential matters learned through the process
of translation (or negotiation) to third parties.
Reliability with regard to technology
9 Hardware and software
The translator owns a late-model computer, a recent version of Microsoft Word,
an Internet connection (preferably high-speed/broadband), an e-mail address,
and a fax machine, and either owns and uses regularly, or is prepared to
purchase and learn how to use, translation memory software specified by the
Clearly, however, the translator's reliability greatly exceeds the specific operations
performed on texts. Clients and agencies want freelancers who will produce reliable
texts, texts that they won't have to edit substantially after they arrive; but they also
want freelancers who will produce texts reliably, on time and otherwise as promised,
e-mailed if they were supposed to be e-mailed, camera-ready and express-mailed if
that was the plan, and so on. They want to work with people who are pleasant and
professional and helpful on the phone, asking competent, knowledgeable questions,
making quick and businesslike decisions, even making reasonable demands that cause
extra work for them, such as "fax me the whole thing, including illustrations, and
I'll call you within ten minutes to let you know whether I can do it." A freelancer
who can't take a job but can suggest someone else for the client or agency to call
will probably get another job from the same client or agency later; an abrupt,
impatient freelancer who treats the caller as an unwanted interruption and just
barely has time to say "No" before hanging up may not. Given a choice between two
producers of reliable texts in a given language combination, who would not rather
call someone pleasant than someone unpleasant?
But it is not enough for the user of a translation that both it and its creator be reliable;
it must also be timely, in the sense of not arriving past the time of its usefulness or
value. Timeliness is most flexible in the case of literary or Biblical translations, which
are supposedly timeless; in fact, of course, they are not timeless but simply exist in
a greatly extended time frame. The King James Version of the Bible is still in use
after almost four centuries; but even it is not timeless. It has been replaced in many
churches with newer translations; and even in the most conservative churches it is
14 The user's view
Just to speak from the agency end of things: I have on
file plenty of resumes of translators in all kinds of
languages. Who do I send the work to?
1 the person who keeps phoning up and nudging me if I
have any work for him. He shows he wants to do work for
me so that means more to me than someone who just sends
a resume who I never hear from again.
2 the person who accepts a reasonable rate and doesn't
badger for higher prices.
3 the person who does (a) great work, (b) quickly, and
(c) needs little if no editing work on his translation.
4 the person who has the main wordprocessing programs
used by most clients, a fax and preferably a modem.
5 a pleasant, nice to deal with person.
(1) is usually important for me to take notice of a
translator. (2,3,4,5) are necessary for me to keep going
back to that person. Of course, if you need a certain
translation combination in a certain topic and have
few translators who can handle it, you'll turn to those
translators notwithstanding their faults.
** * * *
We might work differently, Miriam, but I would hate to
be disturbed by someone who calls me continuously. I could
tell fairly well how good the person is as a translator,
and if I want to use her/his services, I would often send
her/him a sample (and pay for it).
Sincerely Gloria Wong
** * * *
Maybe it's a cultural question. In some countries,
Miriam's position is not only dead on, but essential for
the survival of the person doing the nudging. In such
cultures, both parties accept that and are used (or
resigned) to it. In others, such "nudging" would
definitely be seen by both parties as pestering, and you'll
get further by using the "humble" approach. I think Canada
is somewhere near the middle — you can nudge a bit, but
not too much. The U.S. is perhaps a bit more towards the
The user's view 15
nudging end —
a positive response
have to really go after what you want,
considered a virtue and
. But even there,
there is such
A provincial governor in Finland is entertaining guests from Kenya, and wants to
address them in English; his English is inadequate to the task, so he writes up a
one-page speech in Finnish and has it translated into English. Clearly, if the
translation is not timely, if it is made after the luncheon engagement, it is useless.
As often happens, the governor is too busy to write up the speech in good time
before it is to be read; he finishes it on the morning of the luncheon, and his staff
immediately start calling around to local translators to find one who can translate
the one-page document before noon. An English lecturer at the university promises
to do the job; a courier brings him the text and sits in his office while he translates,
waiting to carry the finished text back to the governor's office.
A Chinese iron foundry is seeking to modernize its operations, and in response
to its queries receives five bids: one from Japan, two from the United States, one
from Spain, and one from Egypt. As requested, all five bids are in English, which
the directors can read adequately. When the bids arrive, however, the directors
discover that their English is not sufficient; especially the bids from Japan, Spain,
and Egypt, since they were written by nonnative speakers of English, pose
insuperable difficulties for the directors. With a ten-day deadline looming before
them, they decide to have the five bids translated into Mandarin. Since they will
need at least four days to read and assess the bids, they need to find enough
translators to translate a total of over 20,000 words in six days. A team of English
professors and their students from the university undertake the task, with time off
their teaching and studying.
1 All of the boxed translator discussions in this book are taken from Lantra-L, an Internet discus-
sion group for translators. To subscribe to it, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org saying
only SUBSCRIBE LANTRA-L YOUR NAME. The Lantra-L archives are stored on the World
Wide Web at http: //segate.sunet.se/archives/lantra-l.html, and all of the passages quoted
here with permission from their authors can be found there. For subscription information to
other translator listservs, see Appendix.
16 The user's view
difficult tO imagine it Still in use a thousand or two thousand years hence. Sooner
or later the time will come when it too will have had its day.
Timeliness is least flexible when the translation is tied to a specific dated use
One of the most common complaints translators make about this quite reasonable
demand of timeliness is that all too often clients are unaware of the time it takes to
do a translation. Since they have written proposals or bids themselves, they think
nothing of allowing their own people two weeks to write a forty-page document;
since they have never translated anything, they expect a translator to translate this
document in two days.
The frustrating slowness of translation (as of all text-production) is one of several
factors that fuel dreams of machine translation: just as computers can do calculations
in nanoseconds that it would take humans hours, days, weeks to do, so too would
the ideal translation machine translate in minutes a text that took five people two
weeks to write. User-oriented thought about translation is product-driven: one
begins with the desired end result, in this case meeting a very short deadline, and
then orders it done. How it is done, at what human cost, is a secondary issue. If in-
house translators regularly complain about ungodly workloads before critical
deadlines, if agencies keep trying to educate you regarding the difficulty and slowness
of translation, you begin to shop around for machine translation software, or perhaps
commission a university to build one especially for your company. The main thing
is that the translations be done reliably and quickly (and cheaply — more of that in
a moment). If human translators take too long, explore computer solutions.
It is not often recognized that the demand for timeliness is very similar to the
demand for reliability, and thus to the theoretical norm of equivalence or fidelity.
Indeed, timeliness is itself a form of reliability: when one's conception of translation
is product-driven, all one asks of the process is that it be reliable, in the complex
sense of creating a solidly trustworthy product on demand (and not costing too
much). We need it now. And it has to be good. If a human translator can do it rapidly
and reliably, fine; if not, make me a machine that can.
This is not to say that a product-driven user-orientation is pernicious or evil. It
often seems callous to the translator who is asked to perform like a machine, working
long hours at repetitive and uninspiring tasks, and expected not to complain (indeed,
to be grateful for the work). But it is important not to become narcissistic in this.
Translators are not the only ones working long hours at uninspiring tasks. Indeed
the people who expect translations to be done reliably and rapidly are often putting
in long exhausting hours themselves. The reality of any given situation, especially
but not exclusively in the business world, is typically that an enormous quantity of
work needs to be done immediately, preferably yesterday, and there are never
enough hands or eyes or brains to do it. Yes, in an ideal world no one would have
to do boring, uninspiring work; until someone builds a world like that, however,
we are stuck in this one, where deadlines all too often seem impossible to meet.
Documents you may be interested
Documents you may be interested