Faithful to what? Accuracy “vs” clarity in translation

What is a good translation if not an accurate and faithful translation? It must say the same thing, fulfil the same purpose, and create the same impression in the target language (TL) as did the original did in the source (SL). Achieving that, of course, can be a tricky old business: concepts in the source text (ST) may not exist in the target culture; TL and SL readers’ cultural norms may differ; and perhaps the translation should recreate not the “same” impression but an “equivalent” one, whatever that is exactly.

But what precisely was the ST author’s intention? And did their choice of words succeed in fully articulating it? For a great many STs are written in commercial settings under time pressure (time is money) by people who are not trained professional writers, let alone literary authors with every verbal nuance at their command. Even academics are not necessarily experts in selecting the words to express their own ideas.

What they said vs what they meant

Thus, a text may contain some elements that do not fully reflect its author’s intention. It’s not that the author didn’t know their own mind or that they are careless or – perish the thought – semi-literate. But they may leave implications or interpretations open that they had not planned to. Ambiguities may have crept in. The professional translator’s rigorous microscope may reveal shades of meaning that the writer had not meant to embrace.

These issues can be problematic when the translator is striving for clarity, a noble aim to which all translators should aspire (except perhaps in the odd case when the source text has a wilful – oh, joy! – stylistic obscurity). And by “clarity”, of course, I don’t mean “dumbing down”, “trivialising” or resorting exclusively to Anglo-Saxon monosyllables. Clear writing makes the information/message/impression easier and quicker to understand completely and accurately, thus saving readers time, effort and (therefore) money and creating a more favourable impression of whoever produced the text.

Clear writing

In practice, clear writing involves sound principles such as avoiding unnecessary use of the passive voice, eliminating needless verbiage, and using shortish sentences of varied, straightforward structure. These principles can be challenging to apply when translating or editing someone else’s work, because of the need to be faithful, to avoid removing any elements or shades of meaning.

For example,

“Tickets may be collected from the box office up to five minutes before the performance”

is clearer as

“You may collect your tickets from the box office up to five minutes before the performance”,

partly as it addresses the reader directly (“you”). The original, however, leaves open the possibility that someone else may collect the tickets for you. But was that intentional? Does the theatre actually let other people do that? If we closely follow the original, we may not actually be helping (the client or the reader). Mundane practical questions kick in, too: to improve the text, I’d need the client to clarify what they meant. But do I have time before the deadline? Would my contact know the answer? Do I even have access to the author? Should I say what the author says or what I think they meant?

The most tempting solution may be the path of least resistance and least risk: just write what it said and leave it at that. But is that best practice? Is that in our client’s best interest?

Plain English

If you look at some example edits by exponents of the Plain English / plain-language movement, the difference between what they do and what translators often tend to do can be quite striking. The plain-language editor works closely with the client to identify the core message, to ensure that the words are chosen carefully to convey it, and to cut any distractions. For example (from Martin Cutts’s Oxford Guide to Plain English),

“I see no reason why the firm should not require properly prepared supporting bills.”

needs the red-pen treatment, but is the clearer

“It is reasonable for the firm to ask for proper receipts.”

a precise equivalent? It removes some needless words and a double negative but turns the sentence into an absolute statement rather than a personal opinion. Does that matter?

Some plain-language edits can seem fairly drastic (even leaving aside less experienced translators’ tendency to stay close to the source when in doubt):

“Title to property in the goods shall remain vested in the Company until such time as the price of the said goods due to the Company has been paid in full.” >

“We shall continue to own the goods until You have finished paying for them.”

Is that an accurate and faithful “translation” (assuming that We and You have been suitably defined)? Perhaps the only difference is that the second version makes clear who is doing the paying, but presumably (TBC with the client) that is obvious and the original did not intend to leave open other possibilities?

Some may argue that the second version does not accurately render the original’s verbose, archaic “style”. But translators’ primary duty when working with legal/commercial texts like this is surely to convey the information accurately and completely, to make it readily comprehensible to the TL reader in a style that represents current best practice in the target genre.

Clarity as added value

With a little courage and by communicating proactively with the clients/authors, translators can produce faithful, accurate, clear translations – translations that serve the target reader’s needs, that help to enhance the author/client’s reputation, and that add value. Translations that present translators as the serious professionals we are.