Sunday, May 8, 2022

Translation as transcreation: garbage in, garbage out?


[water sewage plant*]

The daily fare of most translators is too often poorly written source texts. Thoughts such as “Did the writer bother to reread the text” and “Does the writer know how to write” pop in the mind far too frequently. The errors vary in type, quantity and cause but obligate translators to decide to what degree to intervene and improve the text in translation. To make this decision, translator has to consider the purpose, audience and practicality of this transcreation and choose which changes to make. Ideally, the proposed price should take the extra time and effort into account but reality is generally different. Thus, translators sometime have to decide whether the effort is worthwhile, a difficult decision, as translators are judged by the final product but paid by the source text.

Some common writing errors, found even in corporate texts, involve syntax, vocabulary, punctuation and spelling. A person may be very skillful in a certain field of knowledge and activity but never really has invested time on language. As a result, their sentences can become so complicated that the reader has to reread it several time to understand it, mainly because of its structure and word order. For example, the verb may appear many subordinate clauses after the grammatical subject. Sometimes, the writer uses a verb + object structure where a verb only would be perfectly acceptable, as in make a payment to instead of pay. Furthermore, poor vocabulary leads to the use of incorrect words, mangled expressions, overly repeated roots and undesired connotations. In technical documents, precision prevents law suits and even deaths while in marketing, inappropriate language can destroy a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign. Even more basic, some writers place commas and periods as creatively as children make strokes with finger paint, entirely by intuition. The most shocking common error is the seeming lack of knowledge or interest in using spell check to catch errors. It is distressing to translate an apparent first draft. While in an ideal world, translators would always work with truly finished texts, reality is often quite different.

The cause of this negligence varies by circumstances, ranging from time constraints to organizational structure and occasional illusions of grandeur, to name a few. Organizations occasionally have to quickly issue a press notice or technical documents and lack the time to properly edit the documents. More often, the document is co-written by several people with each one contributing and making changes. If no single person is responsible for the final product, a hodgepodge can result with mismatched elements and inconsistent terminology. Finally, occasionally some people truly believe they are proficient writers. If they have enough authority, formal and personal, nobody contradicts them. Unfortunately, their texts are not appropriate for the purpose as they are simply poorly written. While of academic interest to the translator, the cause of poor source texts is not always clear.

Clearly, the decision to intervene and improve the text depends on the ultimate use, with the amount of improvement related to the type of text. On one end of the scale, translators must show all warts in literature and court transcripts because the errors themselves are part of the content. Poor language in many stories shows the background of a character while the indirect and vague answers of witnesses can demonstrate their lack of willingness to understand or their grasp of the situation. John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Hannah Arendt’s analysis of Adolf Eichmann’s language in Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report of the Banality of Evil are quite interesting in that respect. On the other end of the spectrum are marketing documents, online and otherwise, whose message must be persuasive. The translator becomes a transcreator, often completely changing the wording in order to best reach the target audience. In the middle are technical documents in which the active translator corrects terminology and syntax errors in order to ensure that the document serves its goal, i.e., to clearly and accurately provide information. Thus, the number of required changes can greatly vary.

Unfortunately, deadlines and budgets often do not allow proper transformation. If the customer is unaware of the magnitude of the problem, they do not allow sufficient time to make all the required changes. If the changes would implicate massive review of previous term bases and computer string files, it may not be practical to produce a proper document in the short term even if the long-term costs continue to grow, especially for documents involving product trees. As a result, either or both the translator and ordering party decide to ignore the larger issues as it is impractical at that point to remedy them.

Even if the customer has no issue with making sweeping changes, translators often face a dilemma regarding their time investment. If the translator did not take the changes into account when setting the price, the choice often becomes between volunteering hours or producing target text that is as imperfect as the source. The structure of the translation business generally does not allow mid-project price changes. Ideally, translators should thoroughly read source texts before agreeing. However, in practice, due to time and concentration constraints, most only peruse the text to discover how poorly written it is only after they begin the actual translation, generally too late.

It would be difficult to say how prevalent “garbage in, garbage out” is in the translation business. Clearly, every translator has decided at some time that a certain source text has so many errors that it is only worth correcting the critical ones. Likewise, translators sometimes decide for personal or professional to pull back all stops and truly shine up the language with the hope that the customer, not to mention the eventual readers, say “the translation is better than the original.” After all, translation is a form of creation, a matter of pride for its maker.

* Pictures cpations help the blind access the Internet.

Picture credit: Pixabay

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