In a translator’s ideal world all texts are well written. They are not necessarily classic literature material, but their authors expressed their ideas clearly and logically, their sentences are well structured and make sense, punctuation and typography follow standard practice, and spelling is no issue.

But as you know, this is not an ideal world.

Original texts are often very difficult to decipher. This may be due to a variety of factors: a lack of linguistic knowledge (have any of you ever read the Euro English reports produced by EU institutions?), creative spelling (the contamination of mainstream English by text-messaging slang for example), a lack of logical structure in the text etc.

Unfortunately, as translators, we have to make do with what we have.
So how should we go about it?

To a certain extent, answering this question touches on translation theory and the Translation Service’s expectations. You probably have often heard that a good translation is one that conveys the same meaning as the original text while sounding natural in the target language. Although this statement may generally be true, the opposite might be true too.

Imagine for instance that you are translating a novel about immigration. The author may have chosen to have one of the characters speak in broken English. To keep with the author’s intention you need to reproduce a text that creates the same effect on the readership. In other words you will need to insert elements of foreignness in that character’s speech because it is part of the character’s composition.

Would the same be true of a letter written by an immigrant to NZ immigration authorities? Does the English need to reproduce the problematic structure of the original, the awkward word choices etc.? The Translation Service translates many such letters, from African refugees for example. At times these are written in broken French and may be difficult to understand. Does Immigration NZ need to receive an English translation that reproduces these issues?

To be able to decide, we need to think about why those errors were made in the first place. Contrary to the novel that I mentioned earlier, the poor style is not intentional and does not convey any meaning. The purpose of the immigrant’s text, and thus that of the translation, is to communicate with Immigration NZ. Because what matters in this letter is that the reader understands the author, improving on its quality is adding value, both for the immigrant and Immigration NZ. That does not mean however that the translator may add elements of meaning to the text.

Another example that comes to mind is from my experience as a professional translator for a private company. We often received user manuals to translate for a variety of devices. These manuals, often written carelessly, were very repetitive and rarely free of errors. French audiences are much more sensitive to repetitions, so we had to reduce the number of repetitions to make the translation linguistically acceptable to the target readership. Furthermore, as the intent of the source text was to explain to the user how to operate a device, we corrected all the errors that were contained in the original, while drawing the client’s attention to these issues.

These three examples of ‘badly written’ texts give us insight into one of the key elements of translating. The first step to any translation should be what we called ‘lecture active’, or active reading, at ESIT. This involves analysing the context of the source text, the author, the target audience, the text’s main ideas, elements of meaning and structure, and the purpose of the text. The translation will need to recreate the same in the target language and meet the same purpose.

Finally, if you are unclear about any assignment or what you should do, please check with the person who assigned you the job. You won’t be able to meet our expectations if you don’t know them.