A good translator is a good communicator with an insider’s view of the culture, history and beliefs of the people who speak the source and target languages.
That said, translation is a very subjective business! Different people will perceive different quality levels of translation. Bear in mind that no two translations will ever be exactly the same.
A good translation needs to carry the meaning and the tone of the original text, while still remaining culturally sensitive and appropriate to the target audience. This is to avoid a lacuna problem (a linguistic gap where the reader does not understand target text).
Translation theory has three principles (based on “Essays of the Principles of Translation” by Fraser Tytler):
- A translation should retain all the meanings contained in the source text.
- Style and flair of target text must be identical in character with the style and flair of the source text.
- The effect of a translation must be perceived as a genuine essay.
So how do you identify if a translation is of quality?
Examples of inaccuracy include mistranslations, missing words/sentences, bad grammar and spelling errors. This underscores the need to use translators with a thorough knowledge of both languages, not merely two years of high school language.
It takes experience and research skills to choose the correct terminology. If correct terminology is used, you do not need to explain the terms. This is a two-for-one savings.
For example, a Malay sentence such as: ‘Ikan akan menyedut air ke dalam badannya untuk mengambil oksigen’ is usually (wrongly) translated by amateurs literally as ‘Fish gets its oxygen supply from water’. The correct Malay-English translation should be: ‘Fish gulps water to get oxygen’.
A translation has to be easily comprehensible and well written, regardless of how poor the original document may be. Good translations commonly read much better than the originals. In short, you cannot determine that the document was a translation as it sounds and flows naturally in the target language.
For instance, ‘smart learning’ is not translated as ‘pembelajaran pintar’ in Malay because ‘pintar’ is used to describe students. The correct match is ‘pembelajaran bestari’.
3) Culturally appropriate for the target audience
References to religious figures, sports or country–specific items may confuse or offend the reader.
Such references either need to be excluded in the source document before translation begins, or be culturally readapted into the target language.
For instance, ‘the government of Malaysia’ is translated as ‘kerajaan Malaysia’ because we have ‘raja’ or king/monarchy. But if we were to translate ‘the government of Indonesia’, it is not ‘kerajaan Indonesia’. It should be rightly translated as ‘pemerintahan Indonesia’ because Indonesia doesn’t have a king (not a monarchy).
The audience needs should be considered during translation. Sometimes this is a broad group of people, but more often, it is a narrow, targeted audience.
A text written for a group of scientists needs to be translated at a much higher reading level than consent forms for newly arrived immigrants.
For instance, ‘tiger’ is translated as ‘harimau’ when used for adults but ‘pak belang’ for children.