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A few words on translations

Hum. I ain't gonna make a course, but here are a few basic data you should know if you ever get to deal with translations.

Well, translation is a rather codified science. And that is one of the first things to know about it.

The purpose of translation is to pass on an understanding to people in their own language and create the same impact than the original text.

That tells you at once that a translator needs to gain a full understanding of the original text (known as source text)as a first step of the translation process. For instance, on a software localization, the simple fact of turning over the software to the translator and answering his questions about it can drastically improve his speed and quality. I once worked on a software manual, along with 3 other professional translators. We were through ¾ of the translation and none of us could tell exactly what the program was really up to… no comments. This isn't one I'm really proud of. After all, each translation is somewhat new to the translator and he will always need to work and research to understand the text. Some will tell you "the translator should know"... Well, if he knows about your latest innovations, you might well sue him for industrial spying. (lol) Great translations are not made by translators boasting "omniscient knowledge" of a subject. They are made by hard working- knowledgeable translators suffering from acute dictionariosis - a dreadfull illness. Affected translators can be recognized by the piles of dictionnaries stacking up on their sides and compulsory accesses to online ressources.

Machine translation

This is actually the main bug with machine translation (MT). Up until the problem of artificial intelligence is solved, a machine does not understand the text you submit. Not a damn bit. It just follows a bunch of rules. Several MT softwares allow the user to program new rules in an attempt to close in on the text. The "translations" resulting from MT can be very baffling.

Humour, puns, style effects, or even regular text… are all liable to give very surprising results. MT cannot be used for professional translations. However, MT is not worthless. If you want to decipher the meaning of a relatively unimportant text, you can use MT to see what the text roughly talks about and clear up the points you are not very sure on with a professional translator. Eventually, sometimes in the future, someone may crack into A.I. and create a MT able to produce good reliable translations. That would be just fantastic. Hat down ! But until then, MT is not an option for any professional. However, there is an other type of software used in the field of translation :

The CATs (Computer Aided Translation)

CATs should not be confused with MT. Not by a long shot. While MT is aimed at DOING a translation, CATs are intended to HELP THE TRANSLATOR do the translation. Typically, CATs let the translator view both the source text and his translation. They incorporate a translation memory that contains past translations, so that when the source text is in some way similar to an earlier translation, the CAT propose the previous translation, helping the translator to remain consistent throughout the text. Some also incorporate a terminology data base and can perform simultaneously with MS Word™. There are many CATs on the market, such as Trados™, Worfast™, Star Transit™, Déjà Vu™, SDLX™,… And most of theses products are very efficient - although some are trouble due to faulty programming and failure to understand the needs of translators. Well used, CATs can greatly increase both speed and quality of translations.

Translator's mother tongue

Professional translations ALWAYS require the translator to translate toward his own mother tongue. The reason for it is that translations require " the full picture " on the target country (or countries). In other words, one needs to be able to think like someone from the target country. "Grammatically correct" is a lot different from "Ethnically correct". There are a lot of nuances a person learns or perceives throughout his education. A translation might be great per the dictionary and yet a screw up on the target country. The most dreadful examples can be found in marketing translations, where a single word can destroy the company's image.

While a non-native translator will crack his brains figuring out if this or that word has a peculiar connotation, a native translator knows right from the start that you should NOT mention this or that "'cause everybody knows it's bad manners". Even when a translator has travelled several times to the source country and has authored works in the source language, he is unlikely to provide professional top quality translations. So, once again, a translator should ALWAYS translate toward his own language.

Different translation types :

To be continued… when I get some time. If you have any comments or questions, please email me. I 'm glad you take the time to write and always answer personally. However, don't expect a novel.


Sylvain Galibert




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