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What makes a bad translation?

One of the things that makes translation so fascinating is the fact that seldom is anything black and white. With so many different aspects to written language – such as lexicon, grammar, structure and so on – a one-size-fits-all approach will arguably rarely suffice, if ever.

If this is the case, then, when it comes to translating a text from one language into another, how can you define whether or not it is a good one? Well, there is no simple answer to this question as there are so many different factors that come into play.

Stylistic issues

When determining whether or not a translation is ‘good’, one of the most common issues that may divide opinion is style. This can be problematic as the same text could actually be translated in one of several different ways, with each target text adopting a slightly different style. Ultimately, which one is the best translation will be an entirely subjective issue and where there is subjectivity, there is no right answer.

Each of the end-products could be 100% accurate, meaning that if accuracy is the determining factor, then all of the translations could be defined as ‘good’ – and yet, a client might not agree. In this instance, it becomes virtually impossible to determine which one is the ‘good’ translation and which ones are the ‘bad’ ones, as it is entirely dependent on the style the client requires.

Alex Cazacu, senior project manager at London Translations, explains: “A client might not like a translation from a stylistic point of view, even though it is 100% accurate, as it might not fit in with their current language, marketing or objectives. When this happens, the problem is simply style. The translation is not necessarily ‘incorrect’, as a stylistic issue is not the same as a mistake.”

In order for a translator to know the sort of style that a client is expecting, it can be a huge help if they are sent examples of previous work done in the required style. If it is a more technical document, a company may have a glossary of standardised terminology that they use, to ensure a translation will be in keeping with their other collateral. Editorial and brand guidelines may also prove to be very useful.

Unreasonable requests

With some projects, time will be of the essence. A client may want a translation to be done within such a short period of time that completion of it would be nothing short of superhuman. As the age-old business mantra goes, a translation can be on spec, on budget or on time. If you try to compromise on any one of those elements – for example, in this case, by turning it around in too little time – you are likely to compromise on either the cost or the spec.

“Sometimes fast and good is not possible. No matter how much money you throw at it, certain things are not possible,” explains Alex. At the end of the day, translation can be a complicated job to get absolutely right.

One way to speed up a project is to divide the work down between numerous translators. However, this comes with its own set of problems.

If sections are translated by different individuals, there will inevitably be inconsistencies in the finished product, not only in terms of style, but also word choice, grammar and structure. No two translators are alike – even if they are reproducing the same writer’s work.

Furthermore, something may be introduced in one part of the document and then referenced elsewhere, with the assumption the reader will have seen the whole piece, which the translator may not have done. All in all, splitting work down constitutes a one-way ticket to a potentially poor final piece.

Superficial details

In spite of all of the above, there are of course some tell-tale signs of a downright awful translation. If a source text has 30 chapters and the target text boasts just 22, clearly there is a problem. If a translation is riddled with typos and spelling mistakes, then this instantly renders the work poor quality.

However, superficial problems with a translation can be more innocent than this. Any translated text will appear via a certain medium, perhaps in a book or on a website’s home page. One of the huge problems with translation is that text can grow or shrink when it is moved between languages. For example, a sentence that is 12 words long in English may require 25 words in another language. If this sentence is to appear in a small text box on a website’s homepage and a translator does not take into account the need to be economical with their words, the translation may be great in terms of accuracy and style, but it simply won’t work for its purpose. In this way, it is vital that a translator pays due attention to formatting requirements as well.

Poor practice

At the end of the day, one surefire way of securing a bad translation is to use a bad translator. We recently wrote about the qualities to look for in a good translator. If you choose to give a translation project to someone who will take on more work than they are capable of doing, accept work in subject areas they know nothing about, lose track of time, plough on through the night and work when fatigued, cut corners, not proofread their work and so on, then you might as well just put your translation through Google Translate and hope for the best – but we wouldn’t recommend it.

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