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This blog is a first attempt to dig into the greater question: what’s the Role of Translation? The Translation Industry is a service industry that has gained a lot of attention in the media due to technological innovation and sometimes also through humorous examples of mistranslations (Read: Translating Brand Messaging). But what’s probably not discussed enough is the actual profession of a (human) professional translator. What does a translator do? What’s their background? How did they become competent in the world of translation and what best describes the job that they are hired to do? And what do clients seek to accomplish when they hire a Language Service Provider (LSP) to handle their translation needs? (For the purpose of this blog, translator and translation service is interchangeably used with the understanding that a translator is an integral part of the overall translation service, but not solely responsible for the output of the service).

The role of translation is not easily defined. One point where the role of translation gets into question is when there is a disagreement over translation quality. This post will open the discussion by cautioning against defining the role of translation so broadly that the disagreement can’t be resolved (read: 5 tips for organizations on writing an RFP).

Defining Quality in Translation is not easy

When you reach out to a translation service, you need something translated into another language. But who defines exactly what a translation is? What is considered a competent translation? As mentioned, that question is not always easy to answer. Just look at the bible and all of its translation variations over time. The bible is a rather complex example as it contains a collection of biblical text that are not only under the influence of different interpretations, but also vary in context, both environmentally, as well as linguistically over time. And there is not a consensus around what translation necessarily contributes to the best interpretation, although the King James Bible seems to be the most prevalent English translation to much debate by the Church. To overly simplify the translation aspect, it seems that the debate revolves around mostly two different translation techniques: formal equivalence versus dynamic equivalence. Formal equivalence is what is considered more of a literal translation that closely follows the original source text, whereas, Dynamic equivalence implies that the translator is more interested in conveying the meaning of the original source rather than the written word.

The problematic terminology of “literal” as a qualifier of translation

Literal translation is kind of a problematic term when used in critique, because it doesn’t necessarily mean a good qualifier of the translation. The King’s James version of the Bible is considered a “literal translation” by definition of formal equivalence. However, it’s considered a perfectly acceptable interpretation of the bible for many centuries. Considering that the bible in a sense is considered “God’s words,” literal interpretations are almost a must. However, the bible, at least in the Jewish tradition, is subject to numerous interpretations and there are at least 5 recognized Bible exegetic schools that are studied, including the Kabbalah. So, from the point of view of Judaism, interpretation is almost as important as literality, and multiple interpretations are welcome.

The problem  with non-literal translation is that if you instead try to convey the thoughts and ideas of the source text through dynamic equivalence, you better be sure about what the original intent of the writer is and that interpretation can become a large source of (in the Bible’s case) theological debate. Literal translation seems to suggest that the original writer was clear enough in its original writing that the intent is self-evident enough to translate into another language, whereas dynamic equivalence seems to imply that there is a greater need for interpretation of the intent before you can translate this into another language.

Professional Translators are Literal Translators

Translators in the professional industry of translation are literal translators in the sense that they are more focused on utilizing the source text as a source of their translations than they focus on deriving meaning as a source for their translations. Professional Translators are very much constrained by the text that is provided to them in the source language and are required to follow that text faithfully in another language because they are typically removed from the writing process. So they are to believe that the original writer was competent enough to convey meaning as they seem fit in the form of the actual words that were written down. This doesn’t mean that a translator assumes that the writer of the original content is capable of solving any idiomatic or syntactic relevance to another language. That would be impossible. That’s the job of the translator; to accurately describe what is being said in one language and accurately convey that in another language following logical language in another language. Literal translation, however, can become a critique in back translation when the target language is back translated into English for the client to review and confirm that the first foreward translation captured the meaning and intent of the source language. Many reviewers rely on the English back translation to confirm that but at times, the English back translation can sound very literal and awkward because it is literally conveying how the target translation is constructed and the target translation may sound perfectly fine to a speaker of that language whereas, the English back translation can be very literal.

So what happens when clients complain of translations being too literal?

Here is kind of where the rubber meets the road. Any professional translation service that’s been in business for awhile probably has dealt at least once with feedback that claimed it was too much of a  “literal translation.” But what does that mean? Typically, such negative feedback would imply that there is something seriously wrong with the translation and it’s often considered to be the strongest form of condemnation on part of the translator’s competencies.

But saying that something is too literal can have different implications. If it means that the translator was not able to convey the source text accurately in another language, that’s bad. But when you work with competent translators with a long history, and especially when the feedback is multiplied over several languages, all with well-established translators and editors, the probability of all of them being wrong seems unreasonable. “Bad” literal translations can be easily identified by means of formal review and we do have a standard that clients can use to define errors based on different error categories, such as the wrong meaning or misspellings.

The ambiguity in the claim “literal translation”

But what if the feedback is that the translation “reads too much like a translation” and that instead it should have been written more “like it was written for the local audience”. Let’s break that down. Claiming that a translation something reads like a translation rather than a piece that was written for the target audience seems like an oxymoron. But assuming that a translation should not read like a translation but rather a naturally written document, then how do we qualify the output against the original source?

Metric for evaluation of translation quality in the Role of Translation

A structured approach toward translation review not only creates the necessity to agree upon the parameters translation is reviewed, but it’s also a great way to keep client review in line with expectations.

If you think about it, the request to have something translated that reads as if it was locally produced is a rather ambiguous ask from a translator. What can a translator do to satisfy that requirement? For one thing, the translator cannot assume any specific company knowledge about terminology, local business relationships and customs, writing style and tone without seeing anything comparable that has already been produced in that country. Furthermore, it’s also not clear who has the authority to convey meaning. If your organization hires a firm to provide a message that goes through the proper channels of authority before it becomes the official message that needs to be translated, who’s to say that a translator will know better how that message should be received in another language?

Another issue with this feedback often is that the feedback is not direct. It often happens between the client reviewer and the project manager who doesn’t speak both languages. What we often see in client review is that dissatisfaction leads to broad generalizations and it is very difficult to get to specifics. That’s why client review should always be planned ahead of time, with specific parameters as to which the translation shall be evaluated. The industry has been dealing with this issue for decades and there are plenty translation audit tools (like the J2450 that we modified for a formal review – see image) out there that were developed to manage the client review process in a systematic way as much as possible, but even those standards have limitations as to what they can measure objectively.

It’s really hard to codify translation requirements

When programmers started to work on a translation model for their automated or machine translations, they soon learned that was very difficult to set up a translation model that is purely rule-based. One of the reasons for that is that it is very difficult to understand contextual differences and to codify these differences. What is also not clear is how to approach ambiguity in original writing without understanding the underlying processes that it describes. An example of ambiguous language could be something like:

“we provide year round phone support to our partners”.

Nothing about this text strictly says that the support is available 24/7 although it is very easy to assume that’s the case. There is some ambiguity left in the source that cannot necessarily be made more specific without knowing – for instance – whether or not the service is actually active 24 hours in the day. That limits the translator to not use language that implies anything but the fact that the service is available year round, which could mean 24/7, but also could mean not impacted by seasonality in cases where the business is seasonal, but the support isn’t. You could ask the question to be more specific, but how often do you go out to figure that out and debate the author whether they want to be more specific? A more interesting question might also be whether or not that statement is true in all countries, whether phone support is available everywhere and what constitutes “partners”?

This is just a simple example and some pre-flight on the content may help to understand this statement better. But at some point, there is also a limitation of resources and time, especially when on a tight deadline. There has to be, for the most part, an agreement that the original writer was intentional about their wordings and that we should follow it as much as possible or otherwise get trapped in a world of possible outcomes. Contrast these restrictions against a local manager, who might have more authority and knowledge to make the statement more specific. Is the translation therefore wrong, or not specific enough, or too literal?

Defining the role of translation

The space in which a translator operates could be mapped out as the place between an original piece of source language material (Point A) and a locally written text in the target language (Point B).  Suffice it to say that Point A is the most insufficient result you can get. But what about point B? Would it be possible for a translation service to get to Point B and deliver a translation as if it was an original writing? Perhaps the closest a translator comes to writing something purely from a local perspective would be the process of transcreation. That is, you take a limited amount of information (like a tagline, or a brand statement) and then recreate that into their language using the same inputs that were provided to create the English content (through brand messaging or value statements for instance), rather than using the English text. Even that is hard enough because what if the brand values culturally do not transfer well? Imagine that you worked 6 months to create a tagline and then want it transcreated… should we not as well get 6 months to come up with values that are aligned well with the business units in that country, as well as phrasing that has been written, rewritten and reviewed and rewritten until it is the best possible tagline you can come up with?

Image of an outline putting the role of translation between Point A (source) and Point B (local content)

Hypothetical representation of the role of translation as a point on a spectrum between the source content (Point A) and an hypothetical original writing in the target language (Point B). Different theories exists as to how to assess the role of translation.

Point B seems unrealistic as far as a translation service is concerned. You can even say almost as undesirable as Point A as you’ll be throwing all your resources at figuring out how to get there with the possibility that you got it all wrong. Point B presents a countless number of possible outcomes that can only be reached if you approach the writing in the same way the source content was created, and that requires a lot of resources. These limitations justify the need for translation. You can see translation as kind of the process that sets off the journey between Point A and Point B.

The question is: how far will translation get you? It might be good to explore that further, especially as Machine Translation is getting more sophisticated on the lower ends of the spectrum. There are also different strategies that can be employed such as internationalization or regionalization as iterations towards Point B. Fact of the matter is that no one translation can simply bring you from Point A to B without some iterative process and intervention. It’s important that when you are tasked with providing translations that you understand the requirements that are being demanded from your client. Too vague descriptions can lead to wide ranging discrepancies. Tight time frames may interfere with processes required to mitigate the risk of irrelevancy. Therefore, never accept any translation job for which you are responsible without knowing exactly what the expectations are. Chances are that these expectations are not well defined, too complex to parameterize and not in any alignment with desired timeframes. It’s important for Language Service Providers to defend the role of translation as truthfully as possible. A translation is merely a translation and we need to be fine with defending that position as a position of value.

Global Communication Maturity Model

We’ve been working for many years with the GCMM model to map out organizational process challenges when dealing with growing translation needs. An organization dealing with growing translation need might be well served by defining the role of translation that best suits their needs and also test the against the realities of growth in scope.

To be continued…

There are various translation theories that have been well-researched that go deeper into the role of translation. These are the theories also by which professional translators learn about their profession in universities (yes there does exist a thing as Translation Studies). One interesting theory is the Skopos Theory that’s formed many German translators, but is not known very well elsewhere. This revolves around a hierarchy or rules that start out with the “Skopos” or purpose of the translation. What’s interesting about this theory is that the approach to translation is not a singular approach, but rather a function of the scope of the work. That dynamic approach seems to fit in well with the idea of the Point A and Point B continuum. There are also other theories that criticize this approach. Plus, the theories around the role of translation seem to also provide something more specific to our Global Communication Maturity Model 2.0 which defines the way in which organizations mature through time as they get more involved with translation work. That seems to also affect the scope of the translation and it’s not clear yet how the role of translation follows that maturity model, although it would be sensible to define it as more sophisticated but as it moves on, also more constraint by scope and resources.

This is a good point to leave this post. Next time it’s probably good to add some theory and meat to these models. I want to thank Uta and Thomas, our German Translators for their input and introduction to the Skopos theory and also our Spanish team led by Geo and Gabriela for their input on biblical translations and their review.