There is no such thing as a “perfect translation”

It always amuses me when someone makes a claim to provide a perfect translation. It’s a little bit like an SEO guru promising to put you at the top of Google for a specific keyword. Translation, like SEO, is part art, part science.

The backbone of the translation: basic language rules

Granted, much of what goes into a translation is measurable. For one, you want a translation that abides by basic language rules, such as spelling, grammar, and word order. If a translator is knowledgeable about the basics in his language, then it’s a good start. But that’s a minimum of what should be required.

Translation Must Show Industry Knowledge

Secondly, the translation has to make sense in your industry. This means that the translator has to be familiar with the industry either through substantial translation experience or through his educational or professional background. For example, when we translate mining or geological texts, one of the translators we use is a geologist and a previous employee of Natural Resources Canada. He is intimately familiar with the terminology within the context of geology and mining, and is able to compile an accurate glossary and render the content readable to a target audience of other geologists.

Translation Into One’s Strongest Language

Great translation requires the translator to work in the language that he is best at. Contrary to popular belief,  his strongest languages is not always the language he was born into. Let’s take the example of a translator who was born in Uruguay and spoke Spanish as his first language. From the age of five, however, he has lived in the US and all of his education, social and professional development occurred in English. That person may very well translate from Spanish into English, but not vice versa. His translation in Spanish might be choppy and sound too literal.

Critical Review of Translation

In fact, even when translating into his strongest language, the translator must be careful. It’s all too easy to contaminate the translation with traces of sentence structure and phrasing that may not belong in the target language at all. To avoid this, a translator must take the time to review the semi-finished text with some freshness, i.e. take a break from the process, and return to it an hour or two later to ensure that what he wrote sounds really natural to him.

The Subjective Aspect of Translation: Writing Style

Ok. So far, so good. If we follow basic rules of language, use the right terminology, translate into our strongest language, take our time to review, we are on the right track towards an excellent translation. But a perfect one? Errr… not quite. We come to the one subjective aspect of translation, which sometimes causes a really great translator to lose his job. Why? Writing style.

There is a myriad of writing styles out there, and you might only really enjoy a few. Alas! I realize that my writing style may not appeal to all! Some write well. Others, poorly. It may just be that the translator you are using isn’t talented in the creative writing department, or simply that his style is different from the ones you like. It surely doesn’t make for an inadequate translator. It makes for room for adjustment. By providing him with some specific writing guidelines, he will likely be able to adapt and produce content that sounds better to you.

Second Opinion on Your Translation

If you are still unsure as to whether you are getting excellent translation, then I have two suggestions:

One, get a second opinion.

Two, don’t ask an internal for that second opinion unless the person is truly qualified. All too often, internals who have neither the professional background in translation or the fluency in a language are asked to evaluate a professional translator.  Sometimes, all too eager to voice their opinion and critique, they will misjudge the work. So, when in doubt, ask another professional.

Good luck!


Viena Wroblewska, President and Owner of APlus Translations in Vancouver, Canada

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