Translation Services – When is Close, Close Enough?

In the world of translation, close and close enough can be light years apart. The difference between translating “never use in water” and “use in water” could be a life and death translation error when accompanying an electronic device.

Putting the comma in the wrong place on a business contract could cost you millions of dollars, or not having the right line formatting could void a patent application altogether. On the other hand, there are many times that if the audience gets the gist of things, then the translation really was close enough.

Translation Considerations

There are a number of different options available to the person looking to translate a text. The three main options are computer translation, computer-assisted translation, and human translation. As you might assume, these are in the order of accuracy from lowest to highest.

Certain documents require the highest accuracy in translation:

  • Medical texts
  • Business contracts
  • Legal documents
  • Patent Applications
  • Texts with formulas
  • Scientific writings

For these types of documents, ensure your translation services include:

  • Human translations with post-editing
  • Native-level fluency in both the source and target language
  • Understanding of the current cultural nuances of both languages
  • Field-specific understanding of the text being translated

When documents need to come close to perfect, but do not necessarily have to sound like they were written in the target language, then computer-assisted translation with an appropriate amount of post-editing is acceptable. After all, even if the language sounds a bit stilted, if the message is clear, concise, relevant, and meaningful then you have done your job in many circumstances.

If you are translating an internal memorandum and spelling, grammar, and format are not important, then you could save time and money with a quick computer translation. Even then, a light post-edit is highly recommended since machine translations are known to add, delete, or swap out key data. In this case, the culture of your industry and the established norms or your business would dictate whether close was close enough. Some employers insist that every piece of communication represents the company and a single mistake cannot be tolerated. Others will opt for saving time and money, insisting upon highly accurate data, but not worrying about grammar or formatting issues associated with internal memos that are translated.

Consider the Untranslatable

There are words, thoughts, and ideas that simply cannot be expressed in another language. In this case, close is all you can hope for. Some examples of these words are:

  • Sobremesa – This Spanish word refers to the conversation that takes place around the table after having lunch.
  • Verschlimmbessern – This German verb is used when one makes something worse when trying to improve it. It is hard to imagine why this word does not have a direct English translation.
  • Utepils – This Norwegian word is one that boggles the mind in most cultures. Utepils is a noun that refers to a beer that is to be drunk outside. Leave it to the Norwegians to have specific libations for the indoors and outdoors.
  • Abbiocco – Another word that cries out for a direct translation into every language in the world, and, yet, the Italians have it all to themselves. Abbiocco in a noun referring to the sleeping or drowsy feeling you get after having a bit meal.

When the words do not have a direct translation, a phrase or explanation is the best you can do. Even then, because your words lack the “feel” that goes with the language, your translation is only ever going to be close.

Cultural Divides

There are times when culture necessitates that translation not be exact. This is true even in variations of the English language. The title of the film “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” was found to be offensive in England since the word ‘shag’ in considered a vulgar reference to coarse sex. The movie was renamed “Austin Powers: The Spy Who —” and in Singapore the title was changed go “The Spy Who Shoiked Me” where shoiked means to make me feel good.

In addition to things that offend, some cultures have very strict rules of etiquette. In American English, there just isn’t a way to fully appreciate the regality of a monarchy as they do in Britain, the honoring of the elders as in Japan, or the strict obedience to the government in China. There are no words to express these things that are just a part of life, so the translator has to adjust the language and make it as close as possible to the meaning while still maintaining the cultural sensitivities that are critical to the language and people.

The Limits of Language

Sometime, language cannot be as specific as we want it to be because the verb tenses or adjectives don’t exist in our language. This is not the same as the word not existing because the word exists, just not to the degree it exists in another language. Two examples are the Inuits and snow and the Zulu and colors.

  • Most languages have a word for snow, but the Inuits have a word for blowing snow, dry snow wet snow, falling snow, and so forth.
  • The Zulu have dozens of variations for the word green. We have green; they have green, wet green, wet green that the sun is shining on, and so forth.

Language changes over time as well. How do you describe what a “liberal” is? The connotation of a liberal in the United States is very different today than it was 50 years ago and even more so than it was 100 or 200 years ago. The best translation into another language could be close, but it will never be specific because the term in the source language is vague and shifting.

When translations are perfect, they are not distinguishable from a document written in the target language and all of the information from the source document is completely and accurately transmitted. Does your document need this level of translation, is it even possible to achieve that level of perfection with the contents of your text, or is close, close enough?

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