Let Purpose Drive Your Translation

In any translation, precision and attention to detail are essential, but translation is more than just moving a set of words from one language into another. Translation is both a job and an art. It’s as important to create an accurate translation of an original text, as it is to maintain – as much as possible – the original author’s voice and the integrity of the text. This holds true when translating fiction, naturally, but holds equally true when doing technical translations.

I am specialized in the translation of all things legal from Dutch to English and vice versa. It goes without saying that the ‘art-part’ of translating is far less important when translating legal documents; the author’s voice really doesn’t come into it all that much. But when translating letters containing legal information, the ‘voice’ already becomes more significant. And when translating the writing of legal scholars, the author really comes into play.

Then there is the issue of readability. There are times when the above mentioned writings are written in a style that suits Dutch academic style just fine, but that will simply not read well for an English or American audience. When that happens, how far are you permitted to go in re-writing the words at your fingertips?

This last issue has almost more to do with communication than with translation. Let me explain.

In the case of our company’s work process, I make sure to find out from the client at the outset of any translation what the purpose is of the translation they want from me, and which audience(s) it is meant for. Is it a translation just for the purpose of handing it off to a few personal friends and family so they can understand what the author has written? Is it intended to be included as a courtesy for potential English readers of a book to be published on the Dutch market? Or is the text intended for an international market, i.e. to be published in England and/or America?

The answers to these questions can greatly influence how much you will be able to or even are required to restyle the piece you are translating. Nowadays I tend to discuss the implications of a translation for a specific purpose, and to indicate what stylistic changes might be required. In cooperation with the client, I will then either suggest or simply implement these changes in the first few pages of the translation for the client’s approval. Then, if we can agree on the style that would best suit the translation of the original piece and benefit its final purpose, the translation can be finished to the satisfaction of our client. Where style changes are significant, we tend to agree on a flat fee for the additional work that’s been done in the process of translating the text.

However this turns out, communication with the client is key during the entire process. Roughly, the three stages we discern in our process are:

  1. preliminary discussions during intake: what is the purpose of the translation, which audience and/or market is the translation intended for, what is required to meet the requirements of a translation that will serve its purpose? Note that during this stage, the author might express a preference to have his text translated exactly as is. If you feel that this is counterproductive to their purpose for the translation, be clear about it. It avoids messy and confusing discussions at a later stage (for instance, when the author tries to get the translation published and style proves to be an impediment to publication).
  2. feedback during (the early stages of) translation: are the stylistic approaches taken by the translation to the author’s satisfaction and can the author agree with your approach? Again, agreeing on what works and what doesn’t can be tricky, but it’s worth it in the long run.
  3. feedback once the translation is done: a final feedback session at the end of a translation can often clear up any remaining issues that might have arisen in the process of completing the work for your client. Be careful to avoid getting into lengthy polishing sessions, though. One run-through is usually the standard for us. Anything more than that should, in all fairness, be billable.

This advice goes as much to translation as to client communications. A clear understanding of what parties want and what is required leads to a clarity that a good and expertly executed translation should provide for everyone involved: client, audience and translator.

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