Quality translation, part one

The chances are that anyone reading this blog is already aware of the importance of high-quality translations and the problems that can arise when documents are translated badly.

Machine translation in particular has some serious pitfalls that are unlikely to be completely fixed in the next several years; teaching an artificial intelligence (AI) programme to fully understand even a single language is still a developing science.

Shortly after IBM’s supercomputer Watson won a number of episodes of Jeopardy! some years ago, the data for each question was released and Watson’s second – and third – most likely answers were often dealing with entirely different ideas because of the difficulty involved in interpreting English wordplay.

Still, while we all agree that quality in translation is important, how that level of quality is achieved is often less widely understood. In this three-part series, we’re going to take a closer look at the components of a quality translation.

A translator needs more than just a second language

Here at The Language Factory we’re often contacted after our client has tried other approaches and found that the results weren’t good enough. Sometimes, they’ve turned to a member of their staff who speaks both relevant languages and asked them to handle it.

In almost all of these cases, that co-worker is not a trained translator. It takes more than just being fluent in both languages; you need a much deeper understanding of the craft for even a simple translation. That’s why we have stringent requirements for our translators to ensure high quality outputs. As well as all our translators being native speakers, they also have to have a translation qualification, at least five years’ professional experience and be a member of a recognised translation association.

Moreover, cultural context and industry knowledge are important factors for quality translations. Non-native speakers might not know how some idioms and metaphors translate into their language. They may assume a phrase commonly found in the source language lexicon can be translated into French, for example, whilst not realising the specifics of context needed for French people to understand the meaning.

As well as in house translation, we’ve seen companies use local firms to conduct research abroad and fall foul of inexperienced translation by those local firms. The result is the same – information and context is lost.

This is one of the reasons that we assign a dedicated Project Manager for the duration of any contract; it ensures a consistency in translation quality and in contextual understanding.

If you reread this blog post you’ll find we’ve used the phrase ‘the chances are’ and described an unexpected problem as a ‘pitfall’, to name just two context-specific metaphors. A professional on the level of our mother-tongue translators would recognise immediately whether or not the context for those metaphors exists in their language or whether others would have to be substituted.

There were two more there, by the way – “mother tongue” and “on the level”. Language is so heavily metaphorical that we seldom notice when we move from the literal to the metaphorical unless we’re trained to watch for it.

Even literal terms don’t always cross over

Words don’t always have exact equivalents in other languages. When that’s the case, a careless translation can result in a business promising more than they offer – or not offering as much, seeming less attractive to customers as a result.

Our services also cover coding for open-ended survey results, which is definitely something you have to be trained to do accurately. For a quality translation you need a qualified and experienced translator. Email us at enquiries@thelanguagefactory.co.uk, call us on +44 1727 662722 or fill out our contact form and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can help you.


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Business Services Manager Market Research Agency

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