What Makes a Good Translation?

A good translation may go unnoticed, but a bad one never does. However, what exactly contributes to and makes a good translation?

Micael Pinto • May 1, 2020
Micael Pinto • May 1, 2020
a grey table with some post-its attached to it and a black pen

First, let me tell you that translating is a complex activity.

Nowadays, computers can deal with the most complex mathematical problems. However, even though in the last few years machine translation has seen a major development regarding some text types, computers still struggle when it comes to translating like a human translator.

This happens because, as Marco Neves states in his book ABC da Tradução, languages are incredibly complex and human systems that somehow are constantly changing, making it difficult for computers to master them.

So, the first thing we should consider is that each case is different. Then, the translator should proceed according to several criteria, which may vary and have less or more importance. The translator must have the sensibility to find the perfect combination.

What Contributes to a Good Translation?

Before looking at what makes a good translation, it’s important to identify what contributes to crafting a good one.

Being a Good Translator

Naturally, if you want to come up with good translations, being a good translator is mandatory.

However, what exactly makes a good translator? What are their skills and qualities? How do they become a good translator?

Fortunately, Mónica has a blog post published on this matter – 16 Must-Have Skills to Become a Successful Translator – which I recommend you read as a complement to this blog post.

A Good Source Text

Being the translator, there is not much you can do in order to ensure quality in the source text.  However, you can ask your client to check the source text first, and if it is poorly written, which is more common than one might think, you can politely decline the translation.

Collecting and Writing an Effective Translation Brief

A good translator certainly knows that collecting and writing an effective translation brief creates a win-win situation. As I mentioned in my recent blog post regarding the translation brief:

The more information the translator has regarding the source text and what the requester wants to do with the target text, the easier it will be for the translator to produce a translation that meets their expectations.

That said, it’s essential to understand and be aware of things like the purpose of the target text and the characteristics of the respective audience in order to achieve the desired result.

Taking a Closer Look at the Source Text Before Translating

It may sound too simple, but the truth is that there are still translators who insist on translating without previously:

  • Reading the source text in its integrity.
  • Understanding exactly what the text is about.
  • Taking notes of potential problems (terminology, structure, etc.).

Besides preventing you from future problems during the translation process, these will likely save you more time than you think.

General Indicators of a Good Translation

Below are some indicators we can look at when we want to assess the quality of a translation. However, as I said in the beginning, there are always exceptions, either regarding the nature of the source text, the purpose of the target text or many other particularities.

That said, a good translation is…

Purposeful

A good translation serves its purpose well. For example, if the target audience can’t understand the translation properly, what was the translation for? Is it fair to say that it was a waste of money and time? We already have a whole blog post on purposeful translations (skopos theory) and you can read it here.

Adapted to the Target Audience

A good translation is specially designed for its target audience. Vermeer considers that the target audience is the main aspect that determines the purpose of a text. Naturally, the translation must be adapted to its target audience in order to fulfill its purpose. I repeat: if the target audience can’t understand the translation properly, what was the translation for?

Loyal to the Source Text

A good translation is loyal to the source text. As Mónica wrote in the blog post mentioned above, the translator should be loyal to the author by making sure one don’t produce a target text that falsifies or is against the author’s intentions, ensuring some degree of compatibility and faithfulness between the two. (Nord, 1997)

Fluid and Clear

A good translation is easy to read and understand. This means conveying a message in a clear way, with grammatically correct sentences, with no room for redundancies, ambiguities, errors, typos or any of the sort.

Natural

A good translation looks like it was written from scratch in the target language – did I already mention there are exceptions? If the text doesn’t sound natural, the reader will immediately notice that something is wrong, even if they can’t tell what it is. Remember that a good translation may go unnoticed, but a bad one never does.

Respects the Target Culture

A good translation respects the target audience, their values and their culture above anything else. If you hurt the target audience’s values, they won’t be interested in the translation or even read it until the end.

Tips to Improve and Assess the Quality of Your Translations

Besides already having a few blog posts that may help you improve your translations, I am going to share some brief but precious tips here:

  • Look at the translation as if you were the target reader.
  • Read the translation without thinking about the source text.
  • Review the translation and have someone else review it as well.
  • Make sure you understand the source text, otherwise you won’t be able to translate it properly.
  • Invest in your source and target language(s).
  • Share insights with other translators.
  • Become a specialized translator.

We are planning to further explore some of these in other blog posts soon, namely how to proofread your own translations and insights regarding specialized translation.

Concluding

There will be situations where you should get closer to the source text, whereas in others you should walk away from it for the translation to fulfil a certain purpose. That’s where humans are better than computers, finding the balance between all the criteria taken into account when translating – culture, purpose, tone, emotions and so on.

It is also important to stress that the same text translated by two different translators results in two different translations. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that one is better than the other. In addition, it’s worth mentioning that two different people may have different expectations on the target text – it’s impossible to please everyone.

Lastly, think twice before criticizing a translation solution, we never know the conditions under which the translation was done, how well-written the source text was, if there was a translation brief or not, or if it has been passed onto other people who might have made changes to the translation.

No one said it was easy! Now we would like to hear your opinion regarding what makes a good translation. You can reach us via e-mail at [email protected] or via our social media.

References

Neves, M. (2020). ABC da Tradução. Lisbon, Portugal: Guerra e Paz.

Nord, C. (1997). Translation as a Purposeful Activity. Manchester, England: St. Jerome Publishing.

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Micael Pinto
Micael Pinto

English and French to Portuguese translator and co-founder of Alumiar Elísio. Currently attending a master's degree in Specialized Translation.

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