What is a good translation?

"Still it seems to me that translation from one language into another, if it be not from the queens of languages, the Greek and the Latin, is like looking at Flemish tapestries on the wrong side; for though the figures are visible, they are full of threads that make them indistinct, and they do not show with the smoothness and brightness of the right side" (Cervantes, 1615)

Most people recognise a “good” translation when they see it. But what are the actual criteria to use in order to decide whether one translation is better than another?

Client satisfaction is a very subjective measure – what satisfies one client may not satisfy another. How can a translation be judged objectively?
1. It should be accurate, i.e. an accurate representation of the source text. This means:
  • complete – nothing left out.
  • exact – communicating what the source text communicates.
  • appropriate - correct in relation to the text type or genre of the original i.e. not translating a patent specification as if it were a personal letter.
  • Fitness for purpose. Accuracy is usually taken as a benchmark of a good translation, but to many, it is not sufficient on its own. Here, the main criterion for a good translation is “fitness for purpose”. Does the translation fulfil the purpose for which it was required?
To satisfy this criterion, the French language translator must start by being very clear as to what the translation was required for in the first place. Was it intended to explain something to someone – for instance how to use an appliance? Was it intended to market a product? Just how is this effect achieved in the target language? The translator then needs to identify who is likely to use the text in the target language and exactly what they will do with the text. Using this knowledge the translator is able to formulate a translation that is best suited to its purpose.
Knowledge of business plus knowledge of grammar. In a client survey two main points emerged. For this group of clients, the two main requirements for a good translation were:
Does the translator have a good knowledge of my business? and
Does the translator have a good grasp of grammar?
So there may not be total agreement overall as to what is the primary criterion for what makes a good translation. However, there are ingredients of a good translation which most users agree on and which all French language translators can ensure are present:
The translator’s ability to write fluently and correctly in both the source and target languages.
Thorough understanding by the French language translator of the source text. This includes the topic, plus thorough background knowledge of the specialism if relevant.
A translator’s awareness of the culture of both language groups, and ability to keep abreast of changes, since culture is not static. In addition to customs, social settings, etc., this includes registers, styles of speech, and language levels. The translator needs the ability to know when an expression or reference in the source text is “culture-bound” and to know how best to express this in a way that is culturally acceptable in the target language. There is really no excuse for “cultural bloopers”!
The translator's ability to be “detached” from the message of the text – thus being careful not to “filter” the message according to his/her own views. If the views expressed are extremely distasteful to you as a translator, to the extent that you would find it hard to express them in writing, you should probably pass the work to another translator. Nobody would argue with the claim that there is such a thing as “good” translation, and that this is better than “not-so-good” or “poor” translation. Deciding exactly how a “good” translation is judged is not so easy. Experienced French language translators know instinctively when they have done a good piece of work, but there is still a need for objective criteria to be arrived at. In the meantime, a translator who observes all these points will not go far wrong.

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