A Translator’s Worst Nightmare?

When I had to sit for the qualification exams for my Public Translator certification, I had to face what I would call “a translator’s worst nightmare.” You must translate some text in your native language to your second language, and the text is absolute garbage.

The language problem. Most translators in the world would turn down a job that would require them to translate from their native language to their second language. Standard translating practice calls for a translator to have his target language as his native one. However, in some countries (such as mine) this is not an option; if you are a translator, you must perform translation in both ways. In that case, translating into your second language as target is an exceedingly hard task. One must be extra careful and there are pitfalls by the dozen.

Garbage text. This is one of the worst possible situations for a translator to be in: Translating a text that is absolute garbage. Imagine an awfully written piece of text with ambiguities, inconsistencies, syntax errors, missspellings, and so on…. and then, imagine translating that! This poses a dilemma with two horns.

The first horn is to translate the source text as faithfully as possible. This might seem advisable, but there is this problem: garbage in means garbage out. A poorly written text, full of inconsistencies and mistakes, will generate a target text of equally poor quality. That would seem fair; but the problem is, that the text will carry the badge of “translated by Eduardo”. The consequence is that a lot of people will have a very poor text as the only sample of your work. So, plainly speaking: translating faithfully such pieces of text comes very close to professional suicide.

The other horn would be to avoid this problem by simultaneously “correcting” the text while translating. You lose in literalness, but you gain in coherence and in textual quality and the result is something you wouldn’t be so ashamed of showing off. The problem is that this is also undesirable; because the gains in textual quality and coherence are losses in fidelity. And the commissioner of the translation (or client) could certainly object to that.

For me, this is an unresolved dilemma. I even faced it in my Public Translation exam: I had to translate some really poor Spanish source text into English. I managed to do so after suffering a lot. After the exam, when the examination board called me to notify my passing of the exam, I told the examiners about how lousy grammar the source texts had. And one examiner said to me: “That’s precisely our point. These kinds of texts are the ones you will most probably get in your professional practice.”

“Okay, ma’am, but tell me how should I translate: Should I be faithful or should I correct the texts?”

“That wouldn’t be a problem for you. You did fine.”

Someone please give me an explanation!


  1. Hmm… interesting dilemma indeed. I would tend to think that translating for fidelity is more important than correcting the text, because after all, the grammar is part of the meaning of the text. You don’t want something colloquial coming out sounding proper — I’m not sure, though, about something that is just bad. Which way do you lean?

    I think its OK to be less literal if it conveys the meaning better, but in this case, “correcting it” wouldn’t be doing that… Hmm.

    You, of course, should have no trouble going from Spanish to English. You write great English prose! Finer prose than many a native speaker.

  2. Funny, I’d say exactly the opposite from the last poster. I would say that when you translate you should aim to render in the target language the intent of the original writer as best you can; you shouldn’t be bound by imperfections in the source text. If the original is deliberately written to sound like the jottings of an illiterate teenager, then fair enough, the translation should sound like that too, but if the original is supposed to be a serious text and is just badly written, you have to work out what the author was trying to say and render that.

    Of course that’s difficult, and you might get it wrong. If you’re lucky, you can ask the original author what they meant, but I guess that’s generally not an option. But translation is not an exact science anyway, surely it’s more of an artform, an art of interpretation and re-creation. (I work as a programmer and I think that’s an art form too, so that tells you something about me). You almost never find two words in different languages that mean exactly the same thing, so it’s very unlikely that an ambiguity when “translated” will lead to the same ambiguity in the target language. Of course, if the ambiguity is intended, then you have to try to construct a similar one; but if it’s accidental, you have to take a stab at the intended meaning and work with that. In a sense that’s all you can ever do anyway.

    This reminds me of the classic question of translation: should a translation read like a translation, or should it read as if it were originally written in the target language? I’d always go for the latter.

    I’m not a translator (unless you count translating vague specifications and half-thought-through wishes into computer code – come to think of it, maybe I am a translator?) But my dad is, and from my limited experience of watching him at work and talking about his work, I’m sure that’s what he’d say.

    Hmmm, maybe the computer analogy isn’t such a bad one after all … you’ve got me thinking now 🙂

  3. My only genuine translation work has been editing poorly written English into clear English. Seriously, Eduardo, it is an art form and the tension you expressed shows you are standing in the right place. That is the answer to your question. The only way to end tension is to die; to live is to stand in the middle of the storm.

  4. Thanks to everyone for the comments. What I usually do is to stick to fidelity as much as possible; but again, there is the danger that my reputation as a translator could suffer as a result. (“What a lousy English! Who hired this translator?!?!?!?).

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