Technology and the information revolution have opened a vast world of knowledge to all of us. Translators must develop work habits and methods that allow them to make the best use of search tools and other resources. Looking for extra-textual information is an essential component of perfect translation, albeit one often overlooked or taken for granted.

Translation mistakes or poor renditions happen often, translators and revisers could avoid them if the translator had looked for additional information. Translators often deal with highly specialized, unfamiliar, or heavily negotiated documents without being involved in the process that generated them.  They need to complement their substantive information with further research to deliver a perfect translation.

Common Obstacles in transferring Meaning

Having overcome novelties and ambiguities, the translator now has a clear idea of what was the author of the utterance says in the source sentence. The ensuing journey is to transfer the meaning to a new cultural and linguistic context and to dress it appropriately so a new audience can perceive it. That journey can also be fraught with challenges. Here are two challenges that the translator often may encounter while translating or revising:

1. Equivalency

Equivalency is about finding an expression in the target language to convey the same idea expressed in the source language. It is one of the most intractable difficulties in translation because some words or expressions may not yet coin in the target language, or they may not have a well-delimited equivalence.

Sometimes even an apparently simple term such as “default position” can be troublesome. Sometimes, words seem to gang up against the translator. For example, a word like “chair” or “stool” should not cause any translation issues. But if you were translating into a language like Arabic and had to distinguish chairs from stools, you would be hard-pressed to come up with a good solution. In other cases, cultural gaps between languages make it difficult to coin an equivalent expression that users of the target language will understand and accept. For example, finding neutral equivalents for gender orientation concepts in Arabic has been a long process.

True and accurate equivalency is a rare gem which happens with a little of luck after a lot of digging. Sometimes the best equivalent is not strictly an equivalent, but a much longer explanation. Sometimes, established usage dictates the choice of equivalent. This is why using idiomatically appropriate equivalents is an essential element of a perfect translation.

A special equivalency is the problem of back translation when you have names (especially geographical names), quotations, or other references in your source language which originally come from the same target language into which you are translating.

How to solve an equivalency problem? The best way is to exhaust all available resources to understand the concept and find the most appropriate equivalent in the target language. One reasonable resource is to look at translations in other languages to see how other translators dealt with the problem. As a last resort, you can coin your own equivalent using common sense and your best judgment.

2. Consistency

To be consistent, translators need to ensure that their translations are coherent throughout the document and that they use words and expressions that allow for a continuum when compared to previous texts on the same topic. Consistency does not come easy. It requires constant vigilance and checking.

An even more challenging level of consistency is consistency throughout a set or series of documents. Not everything needs translation exactly the same way all the time, but if you see a set of related documents as telling a story, you do not want it to be a story where the names of the players keep changing all the time.

Consistency is important in a multi-translator/reviser context. It is crucial that the final document does not look incongruous. Keeping the same equivalents of recurring items, titles, or subtitles in a document is a good example of consistency.

Consistency is hardest to achieve when dealing with several sources. When the translators encounter references (especially direct quotations) from previous documents, they may find that such texts did not get translation in a hasty manner. This is an area where modern computer-assisted translation tools can provide valuable help, first by showing inconsistency in a set of documents, and then by presenting the various options, including terminology, so that translators can make an enlightened choice.

A Perfect Translation is a Myth

Translation is intrinsically a human activity, and for many, it is an art. Therefore, there is no such thing as a perfect translation. We will always make mistakes, because the author’s intent somehow escaped our grasp despite our best efforts, or because we could not find a clear and simple way to carry the message in a wholesome manner over the linguistic and cultural gap. Mistakes can also arise due to many other human factors, such as mental fatigue, distractions of all kinds, or lack of time and inspiration. However, we never give up and continue to translate, despite all these imperfections.

Translators, by paying attention to the issues above and doing their utmost to address them within the allotted time constraints, will at least be able to avoid a few serious mistakes that can be detrimental to their work and ultimately to their reputations.

“Yet, the translator’s success lies precisely in achieving invisibility.”- Umberto Eco. In the world of translation that excellent translations go unnoticed while translation mistakes become the talk of the town.

Finally, we do not want to leave the impression that translation is only about toiling in anonymity. It is most of all a source of wonder, pride, joy, and satisfaction for every genuine translator.