Why Does Good Translation Matter?

With all the language variety that exists it is easy to see that communication is central to being human. Language forms the way we think and drives our relationships. Look at 1984. George Orwell ponders this concept of how with only words, relationships can be forged that allow for so much power and influence can be exercised over humanity. This is exactly why good translation is important. People need to connect with your message because by connecting with your words, they become connected with your person.

Languages are the solution to humans’ innate desire to belong and find his or her place in society. People use their language to fit in and to stand out. In essence what you speak defines you. Since humans are eternally searching to belong, they are forever altering the flavor language that they speak. Each change in a language is there for a reason; it expresses something in that culture’s daily life that needs to be addressed. Therefore it is important that the translations your business uses address these nuances if your business wants to resonate and connect with their target population.

Being able to communicate in the native tongue of the country where you are doing business is an incredible advantage, and that is why good translation is absolutely necessary. When used effectively, translations will allow your company’s message to have a better chance of both reaching further into foreign markets and resonating with the populations on a deeper level.

Unfortunately, with the number or major languages and dialects on our planet, this makes the various facets of translating very complicated.

Good translation is more than just changing the words from one language to another. It is more an artistic transmutation of an idea. Done well, it is like an actor performing a script. Translation should take an idea that is wonderfully written in the medium it was created (the original language) and reform it to perform just as well on the stage of a new language.

Walter Benjamin describes the importance of translation in his essay The Task of the Translator:

No translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original. . . Translation is so far removed from being the sterile equation of two dead languages that of all literary forms it is the one charged with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own.

Ultimately, what makes translation good is how it chooses to acknowledge and interpret the context of the text. To that end, there are three major levels of context that are involved in the creation of a document and all of them must be addressed when transitioning words from one language into another.

Linguistic Context

Linguistic context is words. How are the words used? When were they written? Where were they published? All these questions define words’ meanings. To see how much of a difference context can make, here are a few examples:

  1. Two words that are spelled identically (e.g. pitch & pitch) have two incredibly different meanings (e.g. the tone of one’s voice & to throw a baseball at a batter).
  2. A word with the same spelling and definition can have its meaning altered slightly because of it’s context. For instance you can “set something down,” but then how do you know if that is past or present text? How would a machine know?

Good translation makes this clear. A good translator would use the surrounding context to make sure that the meaning of the sentence is understood in both languages without the reader having to struggle to decipher it.

Social Context

Social context may be the trickiest thing to translate because it involves colloquialisms and idioms. Making these phrases understandable across languages and cultures is where the creativity and artistry enters into translation.

As an example, if a text used the phrase “far out,” unless it is specifically referencing direction, it is probably trying to evoke the flower-power spirit of the 70’s by using an antiquated term for “cool.” If, however, this phrase is simply translated to “cool,” then the readers in the target language will lose the period reference and the associations that come along with it.

Without an intimate knowledge of the society from which text is coming from you will miss a lot of embedded meanings. Again, this is why good translation is extremely important. It will not only consider the words at face value, but it will capture and adjust the culture and its references to create equally impactful references in the target language.

Individual Context

Individual meaning is what the author intended his or her work to express. While everyone can read text and place their own meaning and interpretation on it, when it comes to translation it is paramount that the author’s original intent for the words is understood. This is why it is critical that authors and translators work side by side to make sure that the meaning behind the words is correctly conveyed and no unintended interpretations become embedded into the text without the author’s consent.

Translated works have to become successful in their own right. As soon as words come out of their original context they need to be reworked to fit into a new costume. Both original and translated texts need to be understood to be of the same original idea so that they are permanently linked, but not replicas of each other. Often it is simply spirit of the message that needs to be shared. Since words in two different languages do not sound the same, it is unrealistic to expect that an entire document will recreate the original message word for word. However, when done well, readers in both languages will receive the same message.

To reach a wider audience you have to address them within their familiar context. Spread and share your ideas with the world by inserting them into other languages. However, trust the professionals with the artistic endeavor of translation. They are trained to identify the subtle differences between languages and interpret them in a way that makes them culturally appropriate.