The three worst mistakes translators make, according to Nabokov

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“The Art of Translation”, a 1941 essay by Russian-American novelist and translator Vladimir Nabokov, is a reminder that there are some translation problems that have been around for a long time – and others that are evolving or downright unique to more modern times.

For Nabokov, there are three major translation sins:

  1. Mistakes due to ignorance. For example, if a translator doesn’t completely understand a culture, they might not realize how to correctly interpret or explain details in the original text. It’s essential for translators not only to understand the languages they work in, but the cultures that go with them. That’s one of the reasons you can’t trust a ‘bot to do your translating, and one of the key things to check that your (human) translator has got on lock.
  1. Omission of words or even entire passages. Nabokov writes that this could be due to a translator being lazy or thinking that the passages are ultimately unnecessary – or it could be the result of censorship. He gives the example of an early English translation of Anna Karenina that left the word “beremenna” in the original Russian, so as not to shock Anglophone readers by saying outright that Karenina is pregnant with her lover’s child. Today, most Anglophone societies would have no problem reading such a word in their native language (although censorship through translation is sadly still an issue in some countries and cultures).

Omission is not only an issue when it comes to literary translations; imagine how disastrous it would be if a translator felt certain information wasn’t important or socially acceptable and decided to leave it out of a medical document, study, or label.  Luckily, medical translations are usually held to rigorous standards by various organizations – not to mention translators themselves, who want to avoid causing harm or getting slapped with a lawsuit or other punishment.  As this comment thread shows, if a translator today has a problem with the information they’re translating, they often choose simply not to take on the job or client.  Still, if you work with someone who isn’t a professional, accredited translator, there could be a censorship risk.

  1. Formatting a work to be liked and understood by foreign readers, rather than respecting its original version. This point made me chuckle, because it’s clear that Nabokov is talking about literary translation, and not advertising or international versions of web sites or social media accounts (and in his defense, of course, the latter two didn’t even exist when he was writing). Even medical translations have rules and approved phrases and approaches that vary from country to country.

A translator’s job is not only to translate words, but to provide a context so that readers can understand them better.  My favorite way this is done in literary translation is with informative footnotes that don’t interfere with the text.  On the other hand, when it comes to most other kinds of translation, it’s sometimes best to completely change your slogan, the format of your webpage, or what your social media accounts are sharing.  Don’t believe me?  To see what happens when you don’t take cultural differences into account, just do an internet search for “advertising translation fails” and let the fun begin!

Localization is one of the major reasons why hiring a professional human translator, rather than relying on translation software, is the better choice.  After all, outside fiction, no matter how smart a machine is, it can’t grasp concepts like figurative language and wordplay – let alone the nuances of a culture.

Whether you’re concerned about the classic problems Nabokov listed, or more contemporary issues like website localization, before you hire a translator, check for these things:

  1. They have years of experience, especially in doing the kind(s) of translation you’re looking for.
  1. They can provide client recommendations that prove they’re professional, accurate, and dependable.
  1. They aren’t just good at translation, but also at communicating with you about your translation job.
  1. They have the qualifications and certifications you’re looking for.
  1. They proofread their translations – after all, there’s no point in having the end result be full of errors.

by Alysa Salzberg

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