Just How Literal Do You Want That Translation?

Guest Article:
By Dr. Mark Ritter

McElroy Translation Company

From time to time translation agencies receive requests for a “literal”translation. This seemingly inoffensive adjective is much like the term “obscene.” No one is quite sure how to define it, but we all know it when we see it. When a literal translation is explicitly specified, an agency specializing in intellectual property (IP) translation reacts somewhat like a minister who is asked to preach a religious sermon: “that’s the only kind I know.”

So what do clients mean when they ask for a literal translation?

Clearly one thing that “literal” means is “don’t embellish, don’t summarize,” a fundamental principle for IP translators. Translating everything in the source text, even at the risk of redundancy, is part of our standard instructions for translators. Before a translation reaches our client, we further check translations twice for completeness as part of our standard quality assurance process.

Sometimes “translating everything” provides too much information, however. A conscientious translator may feel bound to translate every word, no matter how peripheral to the basic subject matter. Did the requester really want the phone numbers and addresses of all 14 fourteen branch offices of that foreign patent office? The translator or editor may decide to eliminate those details and provide the reader with a parenthetical indication of the content: [phone numbers and addresses of branch offices].

Our translators and our editing staff seek a balance: provide our clients all the information necessary to understand the subject matter, but not so much that the reader gets lost in irrelevant detail.

Translators and editors also have to keep constantly in mind that “literal” does not mean “Give the reader a lesson in the structure of the original language.” To take a simple example, what is a literal translation of the French sentence “Je m’appelle François.” If one just transfers each of the words to English, one gets “I call myself François.” This captures the form but not the content. I can call myself François too, but my name is still Mark. What is “needed”and what our clients “need”is an exact translation.

An exact translation conveys all the meaning: “Je m’appelle” and “François” (in real texts, of course, units of meaning are often more than one word). If I render the French sentence as “My name is “François” I again have only three units of meaning, each corresponding to one of the units in French. The result means exactly what the French means and it is not ambiguous. This translation is as literal as anyone could wish.

Now, let’s consider a more realistic example. Here is a typical German sentence structure common in technical writing:

“Die Verbindung der zwei Stücke erfolgt vorzugsweise durch Schweißen.”

A slavishly literal rendering would read: “The joining of the two pieces is preferably done by welding.” If one eliminates words that only serve to hold the sentence together, there are only four units of meaning in the German, corresponding to “join,” “two pieces,” “preferably,” and “welding.” Therefore, no meaning is lost if we recast the sentence as “The two pieces are preferably joined by welding.” It’s really not important to anyone, and certainly not to our clients, that the German had a different sentence structure. This is what is meant when a statute, a regulation or a certification calls for a “true and complete translation.”

Can we simplify further and still have an exact translation? Since welding is a kind of joining, we could say “The two pieces are preferably welded,” which is only slightly narrower in its meaning. That would certainly be adequate for nontechnical translation, but in a patent it might be construed as limiting, so we generally would not delete “joined.” We certainly could not delete “preferably” without unduly restricting meaning. When in doubt, we opt for completeness rather than pithiness in our IP, legal and clinical work. This is what our clients want when they ask for a literal translation and what we do everything we can to make sure they receive.

About the Author
Since earning his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, Mark Ritter has been a teacher and translator of German for over 20 years. He joined McElroy Translation Company, Austin, Texas in February 1999 as Chief Editor, supervising a staff of 11 technical editors and proofreaders. He has been a member of the German language certification section of the American Translators Association since 1998. Spring 2007 will be the fifth straight year he has taught “Machine Translation and Translation Memory” in the Localization Certification program at Austin Community College.

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Author: John Yunker

John co-founded Byte Level Research in 2000 and is author of The Web Globalization Report Card. He also co-founder of Ashland Creek Press.

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