John Gordon Ross

A Man for All Reasons

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Liberal or Literal?

December 12th, 2008 · No Comments

Corinne McKay of Thoughts on Translation has touched a nerve with her post on “We just translate”…or do we?” Translators have two often contradictory goals: accuracy of translation, and quality of language. She gamely mentions failing two translation tests in a row for different agencies, one on the grounds that her translation was “too faithful to the original” (which wasn’t very well written, they wanted it improved upon), the other because it “sounded great in English, but it strayed too far from the original.”

This is a topic dear to the hearts of translators everywhere, I suspect: we’ve all been on the wrong end of a stinging “too literal” or “too free, too liberal,” and probably both (occasionally, you might even have received the same criticism for the same job, which is really galling). So how do you know what to aim for? Pragmatism says “give the customer what he wants,” which usually means “make it sound good,” but not always. In my comment on Corinne’s post, I mention a ding-dong I once had with an advertising agency bigwig who insisted on having a phrase translated into English with a double meaning it simply did not have in Spanish. What I didn’t include in my comment was my suspicion that the translation might have been for the agency’s English-speaking head office in New York or wherever, and was part of some control procedure – in other words, the bigwig didn’t want his bosses to know that the slogan had gone out on the Spanish media lacking that double meaning.

There doesn’t seem to be any objective criterion you can use in this regard, unfortunately. I do feel that we should not improve on the original and that this should not be expected of us, but we live in the real world. All too often, the bottom line is keeping the customer happy.

Incidentally, in the same thread I have come across the word “finesse” used as a verb in a way I have never seen before. The phrase is “finessing marketing copy,” meaning improving or refining it, (especially?) as part of the translation process. I can see it catching on.

Tags: Language · Translating

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