What is a good translation?

Simply, our definition of a good translation is a text that does its intended job in the target language. This effort extends well beyond straightforward transliteration, however, and the parameters shift along with the nature of a text.

First, there is the problem of the imperfect source text. Translating also means asking the client questions to clarify what they mean, particularly when vague or overused words are added to bulk up the text (words like volet—more on that in another post). Sometimes errors creep into the source text and the translation process also becomes a key part of editing the original, although not all clients appreciate that kind of feedback!

Although creating a good translation involves an extensive knowledge of the source language, it also calls for a more important skill: an instinctive refusal to assume, an ability to halt and challenge terms that seem straightforward on the surface. In other words, it involves a recognition of the limits of knowledge, of when a term may have a twist or subterranean reference that also needs to be expressed.

The traps are myriad: take the word sujet, for example, which can mean “topic,” or “subject” as in subject of a monarch, or subject to. As a heading in a memo, it turns into “Re:”, while in au sujet de, it means “about,” and sometimes it drops out of the translation altogether: sujet aux crises becomes “crisis-prone.” Or conseiller, verb or noun: “councillor”, “advisor”, to “advise” or “recommend.” And déconseiller, which is to advise against, or “not recommended.”

Finding the right meaning requires research, and there are many excellent tools out there, none of which can be used on a stand-alone basis. Termium, the Government of Canada’s terminology database is a good start, but it does contain errors. The Office de la langue française’s Grand Dictionnaire Terminologique is an excellent resource as well, along with Eurodicautom, the European Community’s multilingual database. A personal favourite is Usito, a lovely dictionary of Quebec French created by researchers at the Université de Sherbrooke: it provides examples along with a variety of ways specific terms are used in Quebec, rather than in France or other French-speaking areas.

Last but not least, a good translation requires a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the target language, a love of words and of getting the text just right, so that the meaning expressed in the source comes to life in the resulting text with the same verve as the original.

Sometimes, getting it right in English involves moving away from the literal French entirely, abandoning the safe harbour and striking out into unknown territory to strike the right note. A client once asked us to find names for an advertising character. In French, the character was called Alain Thérieur (on the inside), a concept developed by Magma Design. The challenge was to find the right name in English that would express the same feeling of taking care of a man’s emotional and spiritual side. We came up with lots of ideas, some better than others, but it took a long time and plenty of brain storming. Another leap into the unknown involved a twist on an old French saying: il m’aime un peu, beaucoup, passionément, à la folie. The English version of this is “He loves me, he loves me not” with concomitant destruction of flowers, and it absolutely did not work with the context. We settled for “not getting carried away,” which fit the French intent much better.