The aim of this article is to suggest a general overview of translation, but to do so from a more personal rather than a technical approach, as is often the case. The content of this work is the result of the experience gained during my university career and the brief but precious opportunities for work and practical application of the subject in examination, that is to say translation.
This article has been designed to concentrate first on the general characteristics of the translation, so that even a less expert audience can understand the meaning and then reflect on some aspects of the translation that might be interesting given that they allow us to see from closer up what the daily activity of a translator is, how he carries out his work and what are the different types of translations he may be faced with. To conclude some personal considerations about what makes a translation good or bad and what makes a translator good or less good.
Definition and types
In general, translation can be defined as the transposition of a text from a language other than the one used to conceive and write the original text. It is often referred to as "arrival text" or "original text/proto-text" and "translation/ meta-text". Translation in itself involves the interpretation of the meaning of a text and the consequent production of a new text, equivalent to the original text but in another language. In fact it is a written transposition of concepts from one language into another.
The translator wants to transfer the text from the source language to the target language in such a way that both the meaning and style of writing remain unchanged. Considering the differences between languages, it is often difficult to preserve both. The translator thus feels obliged to make decisions that vary according to the nature of the text and the objectives that the translation intends to pursue. In general, the following typologies can be distinguished in translation:
- literary translation, translation of literary texts, whether prose, poetry, etc.;
- scientific translation, dedicated to sanitary and scientific texts;
- technical translation, that dedicated to technical texts, such as engineering, automotive or computer science. - legal translation, refers to the legal-legal field. It is different from certified translation;
- economic translation, it consists of translating texts on financial matters;
- certified translation, official translation of titles, documents, certificates, etc. that require legal validity. This type of offical translation service can only be carried out by accredited translators. It is therefore essential to understand what kind of translation we are dealing with. It is clear that a technical manual will leave less space for the translator's interpretation, while a literary text will leave more space for the translator's personal interpretation. The art of translating includes not only the language, but also a wide range of cultural and intellectual aspects that are part of the daily life of people who speak that language and have it as their mother tongue. From gastronomy to literature, through the school system, religion and history, all this knowledge is as fundamental for the translator as linguistic knowledge.
Translation has to contemplate all these cultural characteristics and norms that regulate life in the two cultures that are in the translation process. A detailed knowledge of the customs and traditions of both countries is thus required to carry out a translation that is good, that manages to maintain the main meaning of the text without forgetting the target audience.
In this sense the translator is an author, a writer who does not start writing from scratch, but from a text written in a language that he has to translate into a different language, adapting it at the same time. The translator not only has to transfer the lexical and syntactic aspect, in fact, a set of words, although well constructed at the syntactic level is not enough, it is little comprehensible and will lack that "something" that every good translator has to give to the text.
One could say that translating is equivalent to "saying almost the same thing". All this to achieve a well-defined goal: "say almost the same thing" so that the reader understands, as clearly and effectively as possible, what the original text wanted to express. The reader does not know the original version, and does not have to know it, but it is important that he understands the text in front of him. The goal is effective communication.
The translator's dilemma
To "interpret" a meaning can have a very varied result, since a meaning can have many interpretations. This makes us reflect on how exactly one thing could be translated from one language to another given that a phrase or words can be interpreted in different ways. So how should the translator interpret? Surely in many ways, but which one is the right one?
For example, when the author of the text decides to use rhymes or literary figures of a different nature, the translation becomes complicated. A solution can be found to this problem, or at least an attempt can be made, seeking a balance between the two main needs, on the one hand respect for the linguistic form that characterises the text, on the other hand respect for its contents.
In some cases, however, achieving a satisfactory compromise between the two properties is simply impossible, given that respect for the formal structure of the text generates totally different contents in the translation and, on the other hand, respect for the contents makes it very difficult to respect the formal structure.
In these cases it is not incorrect to speak of "untranslatability". There are words in other languages that do not have a corresponding univocal in ours, and to translate them they need a complete sentence. Sometimes they are simple phrases, other times they are too complex and introduce quite subjective sensations or feelings. Language, in fact, is the reflection of how people belonging to a different culture understand the world around them.
The fact that a translated text must remain faithful to the meaning of the original text, without compromising the linguistic rules of the target language, is a key principle of translation, more or less shared by everyone. On the basis of this principle, all the translator's considerations and the translation techniques he chooses are or should be based. However, this is not always possible or at least easy, as it may seem. In fact, it is often the author of the original text that complicates the translator's work.
The author of a text that is not literary is moved by the will (sometimes also the need) to communicate something. In order to carry out his work, he is always conditioned by linguistic reasoning that induces him to try to adhere more or less strictly to what is normally considered correct. The author of a literary text is also moved by the will or in certain cases the need to communicate something. The difference with respect to the first one is that, although it follows the linguistic norms, it tries to fold the language to its will, trying everything to obtain a certain originality of style and sometimes producing a result that is not always entirely orthodox.
In short, the aim of the author of a text without literary aspirations is simply to convey a message, to communicate something. The literary author, on the contrary, although he always has the same communicative purpose, tries to reach his objective through a totally different path. It is easy to imagine what different effects these choices may have on the final result of the translation.
In the history of translation there has always been a discussion between those who endorse loyalty to the author and those who support the reader. In general, the prevailing idea today is the second one, given that what we want to achieve is to make the text sound natural, both in the original language and in the target language. Very often translators have to deal with a text that is in turn the translated version, sometimes not very faithful, of another text. The translator must, as far as possible, try to overcome the obstacle of double translation and try to make his version as similar as possible to the original. A so-called "bridge tongue" is sometimes used.
If, for example, the translator has to translate a text where the languages in question belong to the group called "rare languages", it will not be easy to find a translator who is fluent in both languages and, at the same time, the subject of the subject matter. So the translator will have to rely on another's translation, and almost always the bridge language will be English. This is due to the fact that English is considered to be the most international and widespread language, especially on a commercial level.
What does a good translator need?
Translation is a communicative act, but this does not mean that it is always carried out effectively. To achieve this, it is necessary that the reader has the same linguistic and extralinguistic bases as the translator. This depends a lot on the translator's work. Each translator has his or her own resources, sources, experiences and methods. Each translator is different. In any case, although everyone has their own style and rhythm, and follows their own patterns and procedures, every translator always goes from understanding the text to expressing the text. In other words, it reads a text, analyzes it, understands it and then translates the different units of meaning that integrate it into other units of meaning in the target language.
Translating is not an easy task and requires more work than a simple transfer of words from one language to another. It requires a perfect knowledge of both the source and target language, an excellent general knowledge and a high level of mastery of the subject matter of the translation. In addition to these requirements, there are translations that present problems of an interpretative nature, so complex to solve that they sometimes lead the translator to make mistakes, sometimes serious ones.
For the meaning of phrases is often so linked to the cultural context in which they have been created that it is practically impossible to make an equivalent translation capable of maintaining the same meaning of the source text.
What should the translator do in these situations? Is it better to translate literally so as not to betray the idea of the author of the text, but with the risk of damaging the quality of the translation, or is it preferable to find a closer alternative that makes sense in the target language, even if the translated version slightly modifies the idea of the original text?
I, ans surely many other translators, would answer this question by saying that my aim is to communicate the same idea as the original text. In order to achieve this goal, it is important to translate taking into account those who will be the beneficiaries of the translation, i.e. the native readers of the target language. Of course, it is also essential that the translator knows how to manage his or her speciality or, in other words, the subject of the text.
We certainly cannot be professionals in all fields and at the same time be translators, so when we translate we have to be able to count on the help of different professionals. Let's not forget that in most cases the client is the best possible professional who can give us all the information we need. However, we should not forget that not always the one who asks for the translation and the one who wrote the text are the same person.
The translator has to try to go beyond the original words, he has to try to reconstruct that latent meaning in the words that sometimes the author manages to transmit only in part.
The translator is confronted daily with terms or expressions whose translation presents difficulties. Sometimes the difficulty lies in the fact that we can't find a correct translation, many times we find too many and don't know which one to choose. A source that confirms the accuracy of the translation of the term in question is of the utmost importance. Generally, those who know how to search can find the confirmation they need in previously translated documents or on the Internet.
In other words, the work of translation consists in progressively approaching a text which is, in the target language, the most faithful reflection possible of what a certain text was in the source language. Some words are very clear in their translation, while others require more work and reflection.
Personally, when I have to translate a text I prefer, first of all, to read the text in a fairly general way in order to understand what the subject in question is and then to begin a more detailed analysis of those elements that could be difficult to "face". That is: terms, phrases, expressions whose meaning or translation is not immediate and that, for this reason, I decide to mark.
At the end of this more analytical stage, I begin a search on the subject, especially if it is something unfamiliar or technical, through different tools that can be found on the net such as glossaries, articles, similar texts, previous translations, everything to reach a clearer idea on how to face the translation stage. Here begins the first drafting of the new text.
Word's tools are very useful. For example, in my case I mark in red the words or phrases with whose translation I am not fully satisfied and I underline or separate with a line the possible translations of a name, adjective or verb to choose later the one that seems more appropriate. This is so that the second time I read the text I can have an orientation to move forward, improving. I try to write the full text to keep the thread of the subject, trying not to get too stuck in the details.
Once the first wording is finished, I continue probing the text sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, in order to give it the highest possible quality from a stylistic point of view, looking for the best solutions to make the translation as natural as possible for the reader. During this stage, it is important for me to work with both the original and the translation versions. Only in the last stage, I leave the original aside, I try to forget it, in order to be able to review the translation carefully, putting myself in the place of any reader, a reader who does not know the original and who has to understand the text as it is presented to him.
I believe that this is the only way to guarantee the greatest possible naturalness, which only an original text can have. The translator's task is to transfer the concepts from the source language to the target language using the same expressions as a native speaker in the same communicative situation. However, when there are references, facts, circumstances or simply objects in the source language that do not exist in the target language, fulfilling this principle is impossible. In fact, it is sometimes almost impossible to translate by maintaining a 1:1 relationship between the words in the source text and those in the target text, i.e. to replace a single word in the source text with a single word in the target text.
In this sense, many questions arise as to whether it is appropriate to translate while remaining closer to the source text or whether it is better to prioritize the target text and thus move further away from the original.
According to the first idea, the translator's priority is to be as faithful as possible to the form of the original text. Whoever translates has to reproduce all the stylistic elements of the original, use the same tone and register. It has to keep all cultural elements immute and in some cases force the target language to take the form dictated by the source text. The translator must, above all, try not to betray the language used by the author and, if possible, must convey the meaning of the message.
On the other hand, according to the second idea, it is necessary to prioritize the accuracy of the message to the detriment of the style, if necessary. In order to get the message across, the translation has to replace the cultural elements of the original text with cultural elements better known to the readers of the target language, even if they are not entirely equivalent. The most important thing is the meaning of the message that the author wants to convey. The translator has to deliver that message to the reader of the target language in a natural way. The fidelity to the language, register and tone used by the author of the original text becomes secondary. These are two totally opposite visions, although in the middle we find less radical positions.
Translation is not an exact science and therefore every time the translator confronts his or her work he or she has to identify with the author in the first place, in order to understand what message he or she wants to convey and secondly, he or she has to identify with the potential reader and use a language that allows him or her to easily understand this message.
In order to achieve his task, the translator has to avoid remaining stuck in rigid schemes, on the contrary, he has to open his mind, make it more flexible and use common sense. Thus, if in the case of a law or a technical text it has to prioritize the closest possible proximity to the meaning of the original text, the literary translation may move a little away from the exact meaning to preserve the style and metric of the original text. There are therefore situations in which explanatory notes need to be used, for example with word games, words which resemble each other in the original language but not in the target language, sayings or concepts typical of the original language and culture which do not have equivalents in the target language.
Among the tools that the translator can use is computerassisted translation. This tool allows you to create a translation memory. The translated text is thus stored in the memory. The first stage consists of the segmentation of the original and translated text. This tool is very useful when it comes to translating technical manuals or legal documents because it significantly reduces time and maintains consistency in terminology and style throughout the text.
Errors in translation, evaluation of the translation
Although the main objective of the translator is the perfection of his translation, there are times when mistakes are made. In my opinion, two kinds of errors could be distinguished; the first type are those which conceal very well the condition of error and which do not compromise the text. For example the use of not very natural but not incorrect words in the target language, an understandable but not natural semantic structure for a native reader, errors that are perceived only through detailed analysis and escape a quick reading. On the other hand, there are the most serious, those that compromise the meaning of the text and grammatical errors.
I think it is difficult to establish objective criteria for assessing a good or less good translation. There is no perfect translation, each translator can produce a good translation but totally different from another. So we can say that one parameter is fidelity, on the one hand, to what the author has expressed, and on the other hand, respect for the reader, for what he expects from the translated text. Another way may be to look at the types of errors, and their severity.
A text can, therefore, generate infinite versions and the fact that one is very different from the other does not imply that one is good and the other is not. There are undoubtedly good, regular and bad translations, and so there are some criteria that must be respected: The translation has to contain all the paragraphs and phrases of the original document, otherwise the translation would be incomplete because it does not have all the ideas that the author wanted to convey in the beginning. The translation may not obviously alter any concept of the original. Grammar and spelling errors cannot be admitted.
The translation must be as fluent as possible, but as close as possible to the syntax of the original. This allows a more pleasant reading, a better understanding of the text and, at the same time, reaching the final objective: to transmit the original idea.
As for the difference between a good translator and a less good one, it is not easy to draw an exact line. A good translator does not always make perfect translations and a less good one will never make very good translations.
We can say that in order for a translator to be considered a good translator, he or she would have to understand the text to be translated as accurately as possible and be able to write a new text that is as exhaustive as possible, allowing the final reader to understand the message and the meaning without falling into misunderstandings and without any doubts arising.
A good translation will be clear, transparent, will not encourage misunderstandings and will go a little unnoticed, it will be natural.
To conclude, I believe that translation is necessary or, rather, indispensable for communicating, for bringing a concept closer to people who belong to different cultural realities. An important element for me is the awareness that each communicative act entails a communicative residue, a concept, a word, an expression in front of which our translation seems to stop, to stagnate; where it seems impossible to go ahead with the translation. So it is essential to have the ability to see which parts of the message might not be understood and what tools could be used to compensate for that residue.
Then we have to pay attention to the reader, to the context; because every speech we make, written or verbal, is within a cultural context that influences that of the speech. It is as if there were a border that unites two cultures and separates them at the same time, giving rise to differences, and for me it is here, in this border, where translation takes place.