What is a translation, and how might it be bad?

A translation is a text with qualities of equivalence to a prior text in another language, such that the new text is taken as a substitute for the original. You may not realize it, but “equivalence” is a problematic concept in translation theory. I include it anyway in my definition of translation, because without some notion — some intention and perception — of equivalence, you wouldn’t call the new text a translation. My solution is to make it subjective. For something to be considered a translation, the translator and the audience for the translation have to recognize that the newly constructed text is somehow equivalent to the original text.

I’m not going to try to explain translation in objective, scientific terms, because all attempts I have seen to do so have been problematic and unsatisfying. Despite the problems, translation has been taking place as long as there has been a diversity of languages, and the fact of translation is not dependent on scientific explanation. As philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser said, “To explain why a man slipped on a banana peel, we do not need a general theory of slipping.”

You might call this explanation of translation anthropological or sociological, rather than linguistic or psychological. All definitions that I have seen that attempt to be psychological or linguistic have either recognized their own inadequacy, or else have just looked wrong to me. If this definition doesn’t jive with common sense, then as far as I am concerned it is wrong. It is based on people, and the central character is the translator, who has to be able to understand two languages. Of course the intended audience for the translation is crucial too. For the translation to accomplish its purpose, the audience has to accept it as a substitute for the original text.

Okay, now, given this definition of translation, what counts as a legitimate translation and what does not? For a translation to be good, it has to accomplish its purpose(s). Basically, that means that the translation has to be somehow equivalent, in the mind of the translator, to the source text, and the audience of the translation has to accept it as a substitute for the original. One could add the theological element in the case of Bible translation, namely that God is also one of the active participants in the process, and He gives His blessing on the resulting translation as a new expression of His message. But that part of the equation is least susceptible to analysis, except that you could say that the success of the translation and the happy reception of the translation among the target audience is a sign of God’s blessing on the translation as an expression of His own message.

What does it mean to say that a translation is bad? Notions of “good” and “bad” are a little naive in relation to translation, and I would rather talk in terms of a translation as being successful or unsuccessful, or to use terms that I like but are maybe a little more pretentious, felicitous or infelicitous. There are three ways a translation can get off track. First, the translator could misunderstand the source text. Secondly, the translator could produce a translation text that doesn’t communicate well because the translator isn’t in tune with the language of the intended audience. These are two types of mistranslations. A third thing that could go wrong is that the translator is dishonest, and presents the translated text as an equivalent of the source text when he or she knows it is not.

It should be obvious that if the translator misunderstands the language of the source text, a mistranslation will result. If we are talking about Bible translation, that is where exegesis and hermeneutics and a knowledge of the Biblical languages are important. Or, the translator may not be able to correctly anticipate how the audience of the translation will receive and understand the translation. There are lots and lots of examples, many humorous, where the translation doesn’t work because the translator doesn’t adequately understand the target language, or otherwise fails to anticipate how the audience will receive and understand the text. Here’s a recent example I like: According to the BBC, the Swansea Council wanted to make a bilingual road sign in both English and Welsh that read, “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only.” They sent this text by e-mail to a translation service, and when they got the response, they added the Welsh to the road sign, and what the Welsh part of it says, in back translation, is “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated.” For other examples of humorous mistranslations, go to www.engrish.com.

Now in addition to mistranslations based on misunderstandings of either the source language or the target language, a third way a translation might be what we could call infelicitous is if the translator is either dishonest or cavalier in how the translation is presented as an equivalent of the source text. I don’t have specific examples to give, and we have to be careful about accusing people of dishonesty, but I am saying that it is something conceivable. And one reason I bring it up is to say that unless it can be demonstrated that the translator misunderstood the source text, or unintentionally communicated poorly to the target audience, or was dishonest, then I don’t think you can say that the translation is bad or wrong. This message has gotten too long, and I will have to continue this thought later, but there are some translations that are unfairly criticized as being out of the bounds of proper translation, when in fact there was no dishonesty and nothing unintential.