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Common Translation Mistakes

Over the last three months I edited over 30 translations, in addition to translating texts myself. This explains the absence of posts here, but as a result I was able to find a few very common mistakes continuously made by translators. And whether you are a professional or a wannabe translator, I thought you may benefit from my findings.

1. Left-to-right translation.
Rather than calling it a verbatim translation I chose the above name to highlight the issue of different syntaxes. Indeed the syntax that makes sense in English does not necessarily do so in Russian or vice versa. And yet this mistake is the most common that I have to correct. I’m particularly fond of independent participle clauses that are translated as relating to the subject, with all hilariousness attached.
Tip: The task of the translator is to render the text from a proper original language into a proper target language. If this means changing the syntax, so be it. And instead of translating the text from left to right, start with identifying the predicate (first) and the subject (second).
2. Verbatim translation.
As I have to edit a lot of marketing materials, sometimes a text that sounded just alright in English in Russian turns to be written in a style unfit for the purpose. Most often this is the case of using a precise equivalent of a source word that sounds too blank or, alternatively, too high-flatuline in the target language.
Tip: avoid going for the first meaning of the word and delve deeper. This is why a dictionary of synonyms is a must and it should be on your desk when you work. We, myself included, sometimes begin to think we know the language so well we don’t need a dictionary but practice shows this is not true. Or not quite true because your human computer can also freeze, especially when you handle a large text or working to a tight deadline.
3. The use of language.
Surprisingly, the better you know the language, the more speakers of either source or target language worry how well you can translate the text. It is surprising because the majority of people prefer to remain in control, meaning that as soon as you deliver a grammatical structure they don’t know or an expression they’ve never seen (that totally fits the meaning intended) they begin to question it and sometimes ask you to translate verbatim. I usually explain the client what the whole thing means and, whilst I don’t intend to rewrite their text I intend to translate it into good English, set expressions included.
Tip: confirm with the client what kind of translation they want. If this is a technical translation for their own, “internal” use, fair enough, do a simple translation and don’t show off. But if they are planning to publish it in some shape or form, do your job well and answer questions.
4. Don’t hesitate to ask for glossaries.
Some people genuinely think a translator already knows everything. Not just grammar or vocabulary, but very single lingo out there. We do, we just don’t tell everyone that sometimes it takes hours of research to translate the title of that law or the name of that institution. Even half an hour spent surfing online snatches time off our work, bringing the deadline closer.
Tip: don’t fool yourself and the client. You have the right not to know everything. Recently I had to translate some academic texts from Russian into English. One had quotes, another was packed with special terminology. I asked the author of the former to provide spelling for his references and translations of extracts, where available. The second author was kind enough to input precise terms she wanted to use. I always ask clients to supply me with either existing equivalents or with instructions for how to translate legal acts’ titles etc. The client often looks for someone proficient in language, not in such details as names of legal acts.
5. Style
While editing the marketing texts, I keep coming across two common ways of breaking the rules of any style guide. One group of translators follow the sentence exactly. The first 2 points here were about them. But there’s another group for whom to give a good literary translation is not quite enough. They want to make it even more literary, more beautiful, punchier, more selling… There are two outcomes: either they fall into making an incorrect translation altogether, or the target text is a purple prose overload. A deviation that leads to either outcome is an extremely verbose text. An example may be found in Gogol’s The Dead Souls when, instead of saying “I sneezed” the lady said “I eased my nose with the help of a handkerchief“.
Tip: as on many similar occasions, less is more. Unless we are talking of phraseology, a target text should not be much longer than a source text.
I’m sure there will be more observations but these are the ones I wanted to share presently.

Author: Julia Shuvalova

Julia Shuvalova is the author of Los Cuadernos de Julia blog. She is an author of several books, a translator, and a Foreign Languages tutor. She lives and works in Moscow, Russia.

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