Reader question: deviating from the source text

A reader asks: I come from a court interpreting background, and we have to be super-faithful to the original–how much do you advise a translator to deviate (if that’s the right word) from the original?

Short answer: In 2003, PEN held a tribute to Gabriel García Márquez. Edith Grossman, (legendary translator of García Márquez and other Nobel laureates) was one of the speakers, and she explained her translation method by saying, “Fidelity is surely our highest aim, but a translation is not made with tracing paper.” I guess you have to be old enough to know what tracing paper is, but I love this quote so much that I have it posted above my desk. So that’s my short answer: be faithful to the original, but don’t be enslaved to it.

Longer answer: Every translator is going to have their own take on this question, and it depends on the specifics of the situation: are we talking about a patent or a marketing slogan? A legal brief or a poem? And what’s the purpose of the translation? To be used as a marketing slogan in another language, or just to know what it says?

Personally I’m more interested in the effectiveness of the target text than in an exact reproduction of the source text.  If a client sends me a corporate communications document that’s written in typically French style (“the company” instead of “we;” lots of passive voice), I’ll nearly always rewrite it in a more active voice. Unless the client tells me otherwise, my assumption is that they want something that will work in the target culture, and passive voice and impersonal forms of address are not going to do that.

Also, there are situations in which you have to deviate from the original because your language has no way to express the individual words in the source text. An example of this would be the formal and familiar forms of address that most languages (but not English) have. If you’re translating a corporate video script and the employee calls the boss “vous” but the boss calls the employee “tu,” you have to find another way to deal with it. Maybe first name versus Mr./Ms.; but just translating the words as “you” isn’t going to get the point across.

However I do think this emphasis can go too far: a translation can be beautiful but totally inaccurate; smooth and flowing but completely different in meaning than the source text, and that’s no good either. I’ve heard translators argue that, for example, no one makes French people write in the passive voice. Presumably they’re doing so because they like the way it sounds, or they find a more active voice too harsh, like asking someone “What the %^&*& is your problem?,” rather than “Can I do anything to help you?” I’ve also heard translators argue that when someone deviates significantly from the source text, it’s because they don’t understand it thoroughly: they figure that if they make the source text very different from the original, it’s easier to cover up the lack of understanding.

There are definitely documents that call for a fairly direct translation. Birth certificates, patents and legal briefs don’t cry out for creativity. On the other end of the spectrum, literary translators have to be just as skilled as the novelists, playwrights and poets they translate for, only in two languages instead of one.

Readers: thoughts on this? Thoughts on explaining this fine line to clients?

6 Responses to “Reader question: deviating from the source text”
  1. mariosphere May 5, 2015
  2. Paula Arturo May 6, 2015
  3. joanne May 6, 2015
  4. alchymie2013 May 6, 2015
  5. Sylvie Schaff May 7, 2015

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