Translation skills—illuminating the invisible

When you engage a translator, you give them a document (if you’re my client that would be a document written in either Japanese or English) and expect to receive a translation of that document for an agreed price. What goes on in between—the translation process and the skills involved—is often invisible.

My clients would know, however, that translation is a collaborative effort between you (the client) and me (the translator), even if that collaboration is comprised of a single question and answer. You are an integral part of this otherwise opaque process.

When a translation does not serve its purpose, or its quality is otherwise questioned, it can shed some light on the translation skills and processes involved. And that’s what I’m going to do today—with someone else’s mistake!

Some time ago, I came across some of the worst translation I had ever seen. This was while I was interpreting for a law & litigation matter. It did the following:

  1. Stopped the session I was interpreting for at least 30 minutes, while counsel and I went over some of the errors (there were too many. Omissions, additions, mistranslations galore. I note that both the original and translated text were at hand).
  2. Prompted the client to request a retranslation from the other party.
  3. The retranslation that arrived a few days later was not much different from the first one.

The document was a few pages out of several binders of documents, most of which included both the Japanese originals and their translation into English.

There were inconsistencies in the translations regarding word usage, style, and overall quality, where although many were generally accurate and faithful to the original, many others appeared to be created by different individuals with poor Japanese comprehension—written in excellent, idiomatic English but omitted, added, or mistranslated what was in the Japanese original; poor English writing skills—fairly accurately reflected the information in the Japanese original but where the English was stilted, with errors in the usage of articles, tense, singular/plural, word order, collocation, and register; a lack of translation skills—more on that later; and an apparent neglect of quality control to maintain consistency in terminology.

Some errors, or discrepancies between the original and the translation, I believe, were unacceptable for this type of legal translation. One such error involved a direct quotation that was translated as an indirect quote. The function and usage of Japanese and English quotation marks vary greatly but this was not the issue in this case.

The translation skill involved is deceptively simple: translate direct quotations into direction quotations.

I say “deceptively” because in Japanese, practice regarding quotation marks are more lenient, or different compared to those for English. This means that sometimes, quotation marks around some words can indicate a paraphrase rather than a direct quote.

I may use other strategies in other situations, but with documents that may be tendered as evidence or as aides-memoire, I would translate those words as a direct quote unless it is absolutely clear that it is a paraphrase or something other than a direct quote. If I were to take off the quotation marks and translate it as indirect speech, I would flag it for the client/user of the translation.

A major reason for taking this approach is that direct speech is preferred for evidential purposes, and such discrepancies may affect the probative value of evidence. However, even without this specific knowledge regarding legal translation, accurate translation and quality control should result in a direct quotation being translated as such.

There was also an instance where an explanation of a word (a noun) was provided instead of its translation. Translation sometimes do require certain words and expressions to be paraphrased, but this was not necessary in this instance. Translation also involves far more than simply swapping one word in the source text with a word in the target language. But in litigation, some words—considered to be important—are searched and the circumstances surrounding them scrutinised by the legal teams. Had this noun been such a word, those unable to read Japanese would not have noticed.

Again, this blunder could have been avoided by having the requisite translation skills and implementing quality control to provide an accurate translation, without specialist legal knowledge. If an explanation is provided, the translator needs to make it clear that it’s not part of the translation.