From Syntax to Subtlety: Exploring Factors that Make or Break a Translation

Christian I. | 

May 10, 2024

“Accurate translations are not the end-all be-all of good translations.”

Having worked on hundreds of file translations over the last couple of years, I’ve always thought that native speakers will always best know the intended meaning of other people during translation. Many a time, I’d find myself thinking, “Oh, this looks right,” only to find later that not only was I off, but the translation could also be significantly improved.

I don’t really think there’s always such a thing as a perfect translation where you get a 1:1 translation that doesn’t come across as awkward or incorrect. Given the intricacies and nuances of each language, ensuring a “perfect recreation” from one language to another just isn’t feasible. So, we can only really settle for the next best thing: a good translation.

For me, a good translation has the three A’s:

Accuracy – captures its sources’ objective data and meaning),

Aptness – reads naturally in its target language and demographic), and

Articulation – contains minimal to no mechanical errors).

People may argue that one is more important than the other, but I’d say all three are equally important.

Laptop and hands

Accurate translations ensure the final output captures every single part correctly, doubly so for parts that are easy to confirm. For instance, if we are talking about conversation files, accurate translations will have all speech bubbles in their proper placements from source to target; it will also nail down elements like timestamps. On the other hand, files that use different calendar systems (e.g., the Japanese era calendar, the Chinese Minguo calendar, the Middle East’s Hijri calendar, or the Thai solar calendar), accurate translations will ensure that it matches its Gregorian counterpart. I suppose people will think being born in the city of “Mania” may be cool, or past dates are irrelevant because “what’s past is past.” But, in sensitive files, such mistakes can prove rather grave and set people back terribly.

Of course, accurate translations are not the end-all be-all of good translations. It doesn’t do anyone much good if you translate an expression accurately only to come up with an output that sounds unnatural and awkward.

Once, I remember encountering a direct translation of “killing time” in Filipino, easily one of the weirdest turns of phrase I’ve had the pleasure of reading at the time. In another instance, I also encountered a translation that went, “You know so much!” in a conversation file. While it was a perfectly accurate translation, it wasn’t exactly what the speaker was going for. Based on the conversation flow, they were angry, and I don’t know about you, but I’d give props to anyone who thinks of that situation as the perfect opportunity to compliment someone. That said, I tweaked the translation to capture their angry tone (I came up with “You’re full of it!”).

“Good translations are almost spotless in grammar, punctuation, and spelling.”

Finally, good translations are almost spotless in grammar, punctuation, and spelling. As they say, the devil is in the details. For instance, when talking about European and American pay slips, the functions of their commas and periods differ from each other: one uses commas as their thousands separators and periods as their decimal separators, while the reverse is true for the other. Though not necessarily true, people tend to associate files with good mechanics with credibility. Nonetheless, I’m sure a pair of Nuke shoes are as good as their Nike counterparts, but better safe than sorry, right?

And those are what I believe to be the three main components of a good translation. There may be other elements to observe, but I believe these three are the basics to watch out for. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to buy some Skeechers as I’m about to meet and conversate with friends.

From Syntax to Subtlety: Exploring factors that that make or break a translation

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