Translator Fidelity: How to Stay True to Your Translation

A while back I read a news article about a translator.

The article, which was in the Chicago Tribune, told the story of a translator who had been commissioned to translate a book into Galician.

(The book was the popularĀ The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.)

After the translator had done a fair amount of work on the translation, the client reviewed the translator’s work.

What they found shocked them.

The client discovered that the female translator had changed all the masculine and neutral articles in the original to the female gender in the translation.

The book’s publisher obviously ended up firing the translator.

The translator, in return, defended herself by saying the following:

“The translation strategies that I use include not using the masculine form systematically.”

(By the way, what does this even mean??)

The editor of the book, in turn, claimed that the translator was biasing the work by purposely changing the genders from male to female when they were clearly marked as male or neutral.

The editor also said that ultimately the translator’s contract specified fidelity to the original work and clearly the translator breached that.

Obviously in this instance the translator breached the contract.

The translator was asked to translate a document with fidelity and chose not to honor that.

What do I mean by translator fidelity?

In terms of translation, it means being true to the meaning and form of the original as much as possible. It means not introducing personal bias into the translation.

Here’s the thing.

We all have biases. That’s a fact.

And that’s OK.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

The problem comes when we decide that we have the right to change someone else’s work to be in line with our own ideals, especially when that person is paying us to do a translation job.

Are there instances when you might not agree with the content of what you are translating?

Of course.

This happens all the time and is not a major thing to worry about.

There are a couple of ways, though, that you can deal with it in a professional manner.

First, you can realize that you are a professional and that there are people all over the world, probably even in your own family, that you don’t agree with. If we agreed with everyone, we’d live in a boring world. That’s OK that we don’t agree with every other person. Understanding other people’s differences is how we grow.

So if the content you’re translating is something you don’t agree with, be a professional and turn in a true translation.

The other option you have is to politely return the original and inform the client that you are unable to provide the translation. You can give a reason or you don’t have to. It’s up to you. It’s obviously better to do this before you accept the job.

In fact, it works best to turn down a translation when you are reviewing the original to see if it’s a job you will or won’t accept in the first place. Know, though, that if you accept the job and then decide that you can’t translate the work on moral grounds, you will probably never get another job from that client.

If you’re OK with that, fine. Move ahead. If not, think about it before you go through with this option as it will have a negative effect on your translation business and possibly the ability to find translation clients in the future.

Translator Fidelity: What to Remember

There are two steps every translator should take when translating in order to provide a true translation.

First, the translator must focus on meaning.

You have to get the original meaning of the translation in the source document over to the target language as best you can.

This is the single most important thing to do.

As a translator, your job is to transfer meaning. If you fail to transmit meaning, then you have stopped translating and are merely creating your own original work.

That’s fine if you want to create original work. But that’s not what a translator does.
Second, you have to focus on form.

You want your translation to be nearly identical to the original in every way possible.

Part of that is the form of the original. You want your translation to match the form of the original because if your form is different than that of the original, the audience of the translation will notice. More importantly, your client will notice and will question why you decided to change the form.

If you don’t have a good reason, you can forget ever receiving work from that client again.

Remember, meaning then form. That’s your job as a translator.

Stay true.

If you want to find more clients, be sure and check out my book on finding work through translation agencies.

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