More than accurate translations

By Nicolas Gambardella

[French version]

Can we deliver a more than accurate translation?

Delivering an accurate translation is the core mission for a language translator. Any professional translator should achieve this, and any failure to do so is tantamount to professional negligence. Accurate translation is also the gold standard on which to assess automated translation. However, should this not be considered as the minimum? If so, what is “more than accurate”?

To answer those questions, we must first define what we mean by accurate translation. To translate a text accurately, we must conserve the semantics of the source document. Firstly, we must convey the meaning of the words or expressions, within the context of sentences, paragraphs, and the entire text. In addition to choosing the right words, this includes respecting the correct spelling in the target language. Secondly, we must follow the rules of grammar and punctuation scrupulously. Following these two principles will provide an adequate translation useful in most contexts, and is sometimes achieved by machine translation based on AI, such as Google Translate or DeepL on simple non-technical texts. 

Is that sufficient? Can you expect more from a professional translator? Of course, you can. And you must!

An excellent translation is more than accurate. On top of conveying the meaning of the source, it should deliver the message as intended by its authors.

To do so, the translator must sometimes make decisions regarding the level of technicality to adopt. These choices are particularly important in the biomedical domain, where the granularity of concepts and their relationships differ between languages (although the translator will face them in most technical domains). For instance, there is not always a one-to-one mapping between the English and French descriptions of anatomical parts or symptoms. French doctors also tend to use more technical terms when talking to patients than British doctors. Therefore, to conserve the same impact, a given source document will have to be translated slightly differently if the intended audience is, e.g., a surgeon who is supposed to reproduce a procedure, a physician who needs to understand a condition, patients looking for information underpinning therapeutic decisions, or the general public. “Disease burden” should be translated into “charge de morbidité” in an epidemiological document, but probably into “impact de la maladie” in a marketing presentation.

Such technical choices rely on past expertise, which is why translators have specialities and why they become better with time like good wine. But they also emerge from dedicated research, conducted for each translation project.  A good example is the translation of safety data sheets (the document describing the characteristics, possible health effects and precautions to be taken with a chemical compound or a drug). Both the headings and the contents are coded and country-specific. Knowledge of both languages will be sufficient to communicate the meaning of the text, but the result of the translation will not be a valid document. To do this, one must read the specifications of such safety data sheets both in the source and target languages. This is one of the areas where human translation cannot yet, probably for a while, be replaced by machine translation.

The meaning of words, the semantics, is not the only factor to take into account when polishing a translation, though. The tone of the text and the specific dialect to use (whether actual language or specialist circle’s jargon) will also strongly affect the delivery of a message. Depending on the type of document, the length of sentences, the rhythm, and the punctuation might need tuning to reach the target population. The aesthetic of a text, its general catchiness, is a cornerstone of marketing. And so, whether one translates brochures, websites, or… research publications and grant applications!

Finally, the cherry on the cake, which differentiates perhaps a specialist linguist from a mere translator, is the correction of the source document. This move is something that must be done tactfully, and perhaps solely after a translator and client have established some level of trust. Such corrections might be of proofreading nature (corrections of typos) or more profound, including factual corrections or advice on delivery. 

All this will contribute to a more than accurate translation. And all this is, currently and for the foreseeable future, out of reach of the most advanced Machine Translation approaches. 

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