How to achieve a good translation
Although finding the right translator for the job is arguably the most important task an agency performs, most translation agencies do more than just outsource translations. They edit and proofread them, too. And while there’s no such thing as perfection in the translation business, we, like many other firms, try to get as close as we can.
But there’s no agreement on how to achieve a good translation. Even the words editing and proofreading don’t have the same meaning throughout the industry. In journalism and publishing, the meanings are established: editing is a review of the substance and structure of an article or book. Proofreading is a review of the grammatical and typographical elements.
In my experience, editing in the translation industry refers to a review, based on a side-by-side comparison, of how faithful a translation is to the source, especially in terms of accuracy but also style. It requires a second translator who is also fluent in the language pair and conversant in the subject matter. Proofreading on the other hand is a line-by-line check to ensure the translation is free of typographical, grammatical and numerical errors.
I’ve known of agencies, however, that define proofreading as a cursory accuracy check of a translation against its source text, and editing as a review of the translation alone for its readibility and grammar.
While I do not believe the latter process will produce the most accurate translation, I understand agencies’ temptation to adopt it. It’s quicker and less costly and it’s likely to generate a prettier final product, one that will have the appearance of a good translation especially to a client that does not read the source language.
Obviously budget and deadlines have an impact on the quality of translations — and communicating this with the client is essential — but we must begin with a clear idea of what it takes to produce a really good translation. Here is my opinion:
- Review the document. Most agencies have the know-how to distinguish between languages they don’t speak and to determine the subject matter of a document they don’t understand. But before outsourcing a translation, the entire document should be reviewed both for the level of difficulty and any surprises. Intros can be easy, but several pages in all of a sudden things get tricky.
- Choose a good translator. This is so important. In an era of growing databases both online and proprietary–filled with translators from across the globe–we can start to think of translators as fungible. Yet knowing the true strengths of your translators is the single most important step to getting a translation right.
- Choose a good editor. Although I would argue the translator should be the strongest member of the Translator-Editor-Proofreader (TEP) team, the editor must be careful and astute enough to rout out problems. And, if time permits, the editor’s mark-up should be sent back to the translator for final approval.
- Choose a good proofreader. Seeing a pattern? A proofreader’s job is essential because — and it still surprises me — despite a careful review of a translation, more mistakes inevitably crop up. This is because the proofreader’s focus is different. Their eyes are less on the message and more on the formal qualities of the text, which can be missed by even the most thorough editor.
- Welcome feedback. Although our clients are not translators, they often work day in and day out on topics that we encounter only for the short amount of time we are translating. All feedback should be considered and often improves our translation and teaches us something in the process.