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Differentiating Translation Quality


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Have you ever received a translated document and been disappointed with its quality? Have you ever wondered what you would get if you chose machine translation? Or what the difference would be using a professional translation agency rather than your bilingual coworker? And how can idioms and colloquialisms be best handled for international business to consumer communications?

There are different levels of translation quality, and understanding which level your project requires will greatly enhance your satisfaction with the results. Consider these questions prior to submitting a project to either a linguist or an agency:

  • What language will this project be translated into?

o Your linguist or translation agency might ask for you to define the “language pair,” meaning from Japanese to English, or from English to Russian.

  • Where will the translated documentation be used? 

o This is often referred to as a project’s “locale” or as “localization” for use in a specified region. If you need documentation translated from English into Spanish for use in Cuba, you will require a different translator than if you were looking for a Spanish translation for use in Houston, Texas.

  • What is the intended use of the translation?

o Understanding whether the translation will be used internally or externally will lead to different considerations regarding your corporate brand and message. Clinical trial documentation for use in a region must be readable at a grade school level and must be easily understood in order to not interfere with the results of the trial. The level of quality for a patent translation for international filing requires more intense editing and review than that of one being translated into English for research and development purposes.

There are four main quality levels that you should consider when requesting a translation. Let’s look at the example of two popular proverbs:

Vom Regen in die Traufe.[1] (German proverb)

  • Machine Translation: Of the rain into the Traufe.[2]
  • Literal Translation: Out of the rain and into the eaves.
  • Professional Translation: Going from an unpleasant situation to one that is even worse.
  • Transcreation: Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

A donde fueres, haz lo que vieres.[3] (Spanish proverb)

  • Machine Translation: To where you will be, you do what you will see.
  • Literal Translation: To where you go, do the things you see.
  • Professional Translation: Adapt yourself to the local customs.
  • Transcreation: When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Machine translation (MT) will provide the lowest quality. As you can see from the German example above, some words may not even be translated. The Spanish example is actually quite good, though the message has still been lost. This method is not recommended for technical translations without some level translation memory training and/or post editing.

Literal translations are what you get when a bilingual individual who is not a trained linguist works with documentation outside his or her area of expertise. Quick, cheap human translations, as well as in-house translations by nonlinguists will often provide you with this level of quality. The resulting translations are nearly word for word without any interpretation of a statement’s meaning.

Professional translations are easily readable and understandable. They take into consideration what the meaning of the statement is and translate accordingly. The phrase above may literally be saying “To where you go, do the things you see,” but its message is much clearer as “Adapt yourself to the local customs.” This is of great importance in technical translations for industries having their own jargon, as that jargon differs from language to language. A literal translation that doesn’t consider this will just create confusion.

Transcreation is what is needed when the message is more valuable than the words themselves. When you translate a document for use in a specific location (localize), such as Portuguese for use in Brazil, you want a professional translation that will adapt the document for easy use, taking into consideration the nuances of the language in that location. If you’re advertising a product there, you want the audience to feel and experience exactly what you intended your original audience to feel and experience. In the examples above, rather than translating the meaning of the original proverb, it has been exchanged with the English equivalent. It takes an incredibly experienced bilingual linguist to know the nuances of both languages at this level.

Let’s look at a few more examples of machine, literal, professional, and transcreated translations:

Den Bock zum Gärtner machen. (German proverb)

  • Machine Translation: The support the gardner make.
  • Literal Translation: Turn a billy-goat into a gardener.
  • Professional Translation: To disregard a trustee’s harmful conflict of interests.
  • Transcreation: Setting a fox to guard the henhouse.

Ein Tropfen auf den heißen Stein. (German proverb)

  • Machine Translation: A drop on the hot stone.
  • Literal Translation: A drop on a hot stone.
  • Professional Translation: Not enough to make a difference.
  • Transcreation: A drop in the bucket.

Gehupft wie gesprungen. (German proverb)

  • Machine Translation: Gehupft as jumped.
  • Literal Translation: Hopped just as jumped.
  • Professional Translation: Two solutions are basically equivalent.
  • Transcreation: Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Del dicho al hecho hay un mucho buen trecho. (Spanish proverb)

  • Machine Translation: Of the saying to the fact there is a much good stretch.
  • Literal Translation: Between word and deed, there’s a wide trench (journey).
  • Professional Translation: There’s a big difference between what people say and what they do.
  • Transcreation: Easier said than done.

Les da uno la mano y se toman hasta el codo. (Spanish proverb)

  • Machine Translation: It gives the one hand them and they are taken until the elbow.
  • Literal Translation: You give them a hand and they take your elbow.
  • Professional Translation: When you help someone, they might abuse of your kindness.
  • English Equivalent Proverb: Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile.

One important message to leave you with is that your professional language service provider (LSP) can give you any of the four levels discussed in this article. The processes and workflow structures of most LSPs that offer professional technical translations are set up to provide the “professional translation” level of quality. But if you just need a quick, rough translation, let your account manager know that you are only looking for a draft. This will lower your costs and allow for a quicker deliverable. If you are considering using machine translation for a project, discuss this option with your account manager. Many LSPs will provide you with a 1-3 page sample of your project using their machine translation system so you can get an idea of the final outcome.

Please email McElroy Translation or call us at 800-531-9977 to discuss your upcoming projects or visit our website to learn more about our services.



[1] Visit Wikiquote for more translation variations on popular German proverbs.

[2] For the purpose of this article, machine translations have been provided by SYSTRAN Translation Toolbar.

[3] Visit Wikiquote for more translation variations on popular Spanish proverbs.




Published - August 2011









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