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!