Defining the Qualities of a Good Translation

October 15, 2021
Defining the Qualities of a Good Translation

It's easy to tell a good translation apart from a poor one. A good translation flows well, uses appropriate language and feels as though it was written for the intended audience. A poor translation, on the other hand, could be peppered with grammatical mistakes, include sentences where the meaning has been lost and feel stilted and clunky to the reader.

But what are the secrets to successful translation? What makes a good translation? I want to take a quick break from thinking about the business side of providing translation services to spend some time focusing on questions like these. First, though, let's take a quick dip into the history books.

What Famous Translators Throughout History Think About Translation 

Today, we look to business leaders for inspiration and whatever learnings we can glean from their success. In the translation sector, it's also worth taking a look backwards, to see what we can learn from famous translators of the past. Below are the thoughts of a few of the best translators in the world. 

Saint Jerome 

An early Christian scholar, Saint Jerome is best known for translating much of the Bible into Latin from Hebrew and Greek. Saint Jerome believed not in translating word for word, but in translating sense for sense. As such, his translations delivered the meaning of the original texts beautifully, as well as their quality of style.

Saint Jerome’s translation of the Bible, referred to as the Vulgate, became the official Catholic Bible. For a millennium or more, the Vulgate was the only translation of the Bible available in Latin. That's not to say it was flawless. A mistranslation of the Hebrew word ‘keren’ led to biblical artists producing countless pictures of Moses with horns on his head, as Saint Jerome translated it to ‘grew horns’ instead of its actual meaning: ‘radiated light’.

Claudine Picardet

Famous female translators are well represented in the history books, including meteorologist, mineralogist and chemist Claudine Picardet. Picardet’s scientific knowledge and extensive language skills enabled her to translate a range of scientific publications into French, from source texts published in English, Italian, German and Swedish in the late 18th century. 

Picardet is known for her work in creating a sense of community around the art of translation. She went to great lengths to organise scientific discussion groups and share her thousands of pages of translation within the scientific community. Her views on translation shifted it away from being simply a solo enterprise, making translations something more interactive and collaborative. 

Wilhelm von Humboldt

Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand von Humboldt was a Prussian student of the Basque language (among others) who made significant contributions to ethnolinguistics and the philosophy of language. He was one of the first translators to express how deeply language is linked to the culture of its speakers, showing how the sounds they make represent and embody the evolution of their community.  

His work in the field of comparative linguistics is still respected to this day. Wilhelm von Humboldt was also noted for his translation of poems by Pindar and Aeschylus from the original Greek into German.

Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges first delivered a successful translation at the age of nine, when a local journal published his English to Spanish translation of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince. Over the years, he followed that with translations of literary works by William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman and others into Spanish. 

In terms of his thinking on making translations, Borges was inclined to apply a “happy and creative infidelity” to his work, feeling that it was neither important nor desirable to stick too closely to the source text. 

Constance Garnett 

A prolific translator of Russian literature (she produced 71 volumes of translations from Russian to English), Constance Garnett was hugely influential in bringing important Russian works to English-speaking audiences. 

Based on her translations, it is clear that Garnett was not overly focused on small details. If she didn’t understand a word or phrase, she was happy to skip past it for the sake of cracking on with the rest of the translation without delay. ‘Readability’ was a key priority for her and she was happy to skate over small portions of text in pursuit of this. 

As a result, Garnett was not without her critics. Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Brodsky and David Foster Wallace all shared negative views of her work. Chief among the criticisms was the loss of the author’s original style, along with disapproval of Garnett’s rather prudish Victorian attitude when it came to word choices. 

Sir Richard Burton

One translator who felt no inclination to be prudish was Sir Richard Burton. He believed that English readers would benefit from less high-brow translations than were usually delivered at the time, so set to work on some rather more controversial texts. His translations included The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night and the first ever English edition of the Kama Sutra. 

If you’re hungry for details of other famous translators, click the link below. Meanwhile, I want to take a quick look at precisely what we mean by ‘success’ when it comes to making translations, whether of literary works or for business purposes. 

Read more: Who are the best translators in history?

Is There a Global Consensus? 

What makes a great translation? Obviously, opinions differ from country to country, with cultural factors coming into play. However, there are certain key elements on which most people agree.

The Translator 

First and foremost, when it comes to what makes a good translation, are the skills and experience of the translator. So, what makes a good translator? The required skills fall broadly into two categories: translation and writing. It is not enough simply to comprehend and translate the source material. The translator must also be a skilled writer if they are to convey the translation eloquently while also sticking sufficiently to the source material. 

Understanding the Audience 

Next comes the translator’s understanding of the audience and their needs. Translating novel is a very different undertaking to translating (for example) a social media advert where the desire is for the reader to take a particular action (and usually part with their cash). In these situations, the definition of a successful translation will differ. A well translated novel is more likely to respect the original text than a translated advert, which may take liberties with diesel's material in order to achieve the desired outcome. Both of these can be considered to be successful translations, though the translator’s approach will be very different in each case. 

The same is true of anything that's being translated, from legal papers to poetry.

Invisible Translation

As I mentioned above, a good translation also reads as though it was originally written for the target audience. The fact that it has been translated should not be visible. How in tune the translator is with the content and the author’s tone can have a major impact on this.

The Human Touch 

While translation IT has come a long way, the human touch is still essential when making translations shine. Translation tools can make translation faster and, when used correctly, more accurate. However, computerised translation cannot yet compete with the skill and nuance that human translators bring to the table.

International Regulatory Standards for the Provision of Translation Work

Many countries have their own regulatory standards for ensuring the quality of translation work. I will include a few examples of these below. There’s also plenty of information online for those seeking an agency of a certain quality – you can see a list of some of the best by clicking the link below. 

Read more: The 20 Fastest and Best Translation Services in 2021

Professional Translation

When it comes to professional translation, a number of quality standards are available. Quality assurance guidelines vary per region and use. Our translation services follow the quality standards below among many others.

ISO 17100:2015

ISP 17100:2015 lays out, “the core processes, resources, and other aspects necessary for the delivery of a quality translation service that meets applicable specifications”. Interestingly, given what I was saying above about the need for the human touch when it comes to good translation, this standard doesn't cover raw output from machine translation plus post-editing.

Providers of translation services can use ISO 17100:2015 to demonstrate the capability and robustness of their processes and resources. This can provide clients and potential clients with confidence in the company’s services.

ASTM F2575-06

ASTM F2575-06 Standard Guide for Quality Assurance in Translation is the American translation quality standard. It defines the parameters for a successful translation project, without going into too specific detail (as doing so would be impossible, given the hugely varied nature of translation jobs). Instead, it “identifies factors relevant to the quality of language translation services for each phase of a translation project”. 

CAN/CGSB-131.10-2017

The Canadian Language Industry Association launched this translation quality standard to establish and define, “the requirements for the provision of translation services by translation service providers”. The standard is applicable to individual translators, as well as to organisations. 

The above is not an exhaustive list of translation quality standards. Other examples include UNI 10574 in Italy, DIN 2345 in Germany and Önorm D 1200 and Önorm D 1201 in Austria, as well as similar systems around the world. While these differ from country to country, at their core they are designed to cover the processes, resources and other elements required to deliver good, reliable professional translations.

It is worth noting, however, that attaining one of these standards is not a sure-fire guarantee of translation quality. A translation services provider needs to adhere to the spirit of the standards as well as the letter of them. That requires ongoing training and support for translators, as well as outstanding communication with both translators and translation clients.

Literary Translation 

When it comes to literary translation, the proof is very much in the pudding. Every individual reader will judge the quality of the work against their own criteria, just as they would when reading any book. That said, there are some translations that do stand out. Baudelaire’s translations of Poe are the obvious case in point, with some claiming they are better than the originals (and others vehemently disagreeing). 

In more recent times, journalist and novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, after waiting three years for Gregory Rabassa to deliver a translation of his book One Hundred Years of Solitude, proclaimed the resulting translation to be better than the original. Praise for a literary translation can hardly come much higher. 

Literary translators have a tough job. Remaining true to the original text, while also delivering the translation with a style and flow comparable to that of the source, is hard. Very, very hard. 

In terms of formal quality standards, literary translators or literary translation agencies can apply for those detailed above, or their local equivalents, should they feel so inclined. But when it comes down to opinions on whether their work is a good translation or not, it will largely be up to individual readers to decide. And, of course, to critics, should the novel in question be of sufficient quality and prominence. 

What Do You Think Makes a Translation Successful? 

I've covered various elements above of what makes a translation successful, but what does successful translation mean to you? You can leave a comment below to share your thoughts on how to make a translation that shines and why doing so is so important. I look forward to hearing your views.

If you're keen to read more on translation from a wide range of experts sharing their thoughts on the craft, why not click the link below to discover the top 20 translation blogs?

Read more: Top 20 Translation Blogs