“Translations can only be as good as their source text”

A recent poll on Proz.com invited users of the site to agree or disagree with this statement. It is fair to say that opinions varied. Just under half – 48.5% of respondents – disagreed, opining that translations can be better (perhaps indicating that translators feel it is expected of them to improve on the source text); 34.5% stated that ‘It depends’, whilst a mere 15.2% agreed with the statement. A very small percentage – 1.8% – chose the ‘Other’ option.

In the forum attached to this poll, there are comments from a number of translators who have strong opinions on the topic.

Whilst some translators argue that as long as the meaning is represented, the translated text can be edited in order to produce a more fluent final piece, others disagree, stating that regardless of the standard of the source text, the translations must be faithful, and it is not up to the translator to edit the meaning or style of the text. The latter, it is argued, is particularly relevant when working with legal or technical documents. One translator comments that some mistakes such as spelling errors and examples of incorrect punctuation can be easily corrected, however improving a badly written piece of text to the extent that the resulting translation is a smooth, fluent text, often proves quite difficult.

“Although they say you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, we usually have a bash anyway” is one translator’s contribution to the discussion, whilst another remarks that it would be “absurd” to reproduce a poor piece of writing in the target language.

On the other hand, one contributor, who clearly feels very strongly about the subject in question, states that it is not his job to correct the source text, but merely to translate what he is given. He gives the example that an interpreter would not say what they thought their client was trying to say, but would faithfully translate what their client had said. He states that it is up to the author of the text to ensure that the text is coherent and comprehensible. Another translator agrees, opining that the translator’s principal job is to preserve the meaning of the text.

One point that the majority of the participating translators seem to agree on is that the final decision lies with the client. If the poor quality of the source text is highlighted to the client, and they give their permission for the translator to take more initiative and edit the text to create a more fluent final piece, then translators are generally happy to do so. Although this does raise the issue of rates and charges – should translators charge more if they are expected to proofread and edit the text, as well as translating it?

“The better the original text, the higher the probability that a skilled translator will produce not only an excellent translation, but one that accurately reflects the original text without being a “transcreation” is the concluding view of one translator. Therefore, if clients provide translators with well-written, fluent, accurate documents for translation, this will be reflected in the resulting translations, and everybody is a winner!