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John Ciardi, in his foreword to his translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, observes that any translation is, at best, a failure. He means it is impossible to convey the depth and levels of meaning of the original into another language. That point conceded, however, translations must be made and used. If there were texts in Finnish one needed to understand by next week, it is absurd to suppose that one should (or could) acquire mastery of that language in the time allotted. The fact is, there is important information in many languages that one may wish to know, and it is further absurd to suppose one can acquire anything like a thorough understanding of all those languages.

In many cases, a bad translation is obvious. In the English version of a flyer promoting a Japanese amusement-park ride, for example, park-goers were promised that they would be "brandished and inverted." In such cases the bad translation announces itself in strident tones, and one doesn't have to be John Ciardi to realize that a re-translation of the translation will be required in order to piece together the actual meaning.

But what about translations that do not set off grammatical or usage alarms, yet may still be poor renderings of the meaning of the original? Are there other, perhaps subtler clues you would look for that would make you question whether the translator has done the job well or poorly?

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Easy: all translations are poor. :-) [As nohat says, it's easy to detect translations that read poorly in the target language, but the only way to see if a translation is faithful to the original is to read the original... though comparing lots of translations of the same work can also help a bit. Consider for instance FitzGerald's translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which is horribly unfaithful literally, but perhaps retains the feel and beauty of the original better... such trade-offs always exist; there is no such thing as a good translation.] – ShreevatsaR Oct 29 '11 at 17:21
up vote 6 down vote accepted

There are two ways that a translation might be bad: faithfulness to the original and fluency in the target language.

As you suppose, it is easy to detect flaws in fluency in the target language because they are apparent to anyone fluent in the target language. However, the only way to tell if a translation is not faithful to the original is to know both languages. In cases that you don't, you have to trust the professionalism and skill of the translator. If you don't know who the translator is or what his or her credentials are, then you have reason to be doubtful.

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Accepting this answer together with the realization that my question is probably overly broad and potentially unanswerable. – Robusto Dec 1 '10 at 21:55
And faithfulness is hard to define too, if you're slavishly faithful, you can translate the meaning, but lose the 'feel'. Alternatively you might only spot one possible meaning, where the author intended several, or another. In Italian they say traduttore, traditore, (which is, in itself, a good example of untranslatability). – Benjol Dec 2 '10 at 5:59
yeah this makes me question the people who take the Bible literally... especially those saying "If English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me." – Claudiu Dec 2 '10 at 6:43
Another option is to read multiple translations to see how they compare. – Eric Dec 2 '10 at 10:35

Any translation is at best an approximation, since it is rarely possible to convey the exact meaning of a source language text in the translated text. Speaking as a professional translator here.

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Prose translations of the Divine Comedy are quite dull in comparison with the Ciardi rendering. Ciardi retained Dante's three-line structure as well as a simplified rhyming scheme (ABA). (Ciardi also apologized for not retaining Dante's AAA scheme.)

Consider Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" in parallel translations in Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. The translators did much more than simply make the nonsense words "sound" French or German. They maintained something of the flavor, structure, and even onomatopoetic qualities of the original. More importantly, the translators conveyed the (imaginary) Bandersnatch into the reader's mind.

Also consider the Harry Potter series, translated from BE to AE. (Was that a Philosopher's Stone or a Sorcerer's Stone?) In one novel, Harry was toasting an "English muffin" in the fireplace. A Brit took pains to explain that not only was a "crumpet" different, but that the scene conveyed a normal, middle-class, comforting tradition. (Just try explaining that with a footnote!)

I might add to the accepted answer that one might look for a match in texture and register, as well as comparable skill in expressiveness. For example, speech from a youth should be similar to the original language (for example, using a smaller vocabulary or a youth's register). While a reader may not be able to know if the translation were accurate, he might get an inkling as to its fidelity.

Nods to Benjol's traduttore, traditore.

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Eh, I disagree with some of the answers here. See, you can grow up fluent in two languages and still convey the meaning of the words into both. I have an uncle who grew up knowing three: English, Japanese, and Korean. He knew all three since he could talk, and it 100% fluent in all of them. Just because someone else can't translate both the words and the meaning doesn't mean others can't as well. As a society, people tend to not believe in absolute possibility(i.e. everyone wants to believe that people are gonna be happy sometimes and sad sometimes, but not many will accept that it is possible for a person to never be sad and a person to never be happy.) Depending on what it is, if both are possible at the same time, then they are possible alone too. That's the same here. Another example: I have been speaking English and Japanese simultaneously since birth since I was very small. If I were to translate the very formal phrase "Moushiwake arimasen deshita", which literally means "There is no excuse(for what I have done)" I would say it means "I am truly sorry for what I've done." or "I sincerely apologize for what I've done." because even though "sorry" or "apologize" is nowhere in the original Japanese sentence, that is the "feeling" or "meaning" that is used or conveyed. Sometimes, when watching anime, I will come across translations that aren't literal. Like if a character says "Shikkari shite!(which is kinda like "Hold on!" when someone is hurt and needs help for example)" in the subtitles it'll say "Don't you die on me!" That is nowhere NEAR "Hold on!" in terms of word-per-word translation, but the meaning is the same. When the characters say "Shikkari shite" in those kinds of situations, it is a strong and worried feeling that they are feeling at that moment. And "Don't you die on me!" is perfect for that. So, that is also a good translation. Also, sometimes a character will do something "stupid" and another will say "Nani yattenda!?!" and the subtitles will say "Don't do that idiot!" even though the literal translation is "WHAT are you doing!?!" or "What the heck are you doing!?!". But again, the meaning of the original phrase is better passed alone with "Don't do that idiot!".

Basically, what I'm trying to say is that the one true way to tell if the translation is "bad" is to be able to read both languages and see for yourself. For me, "bad" means that the grammar is off and the meaning isn't conveyed(like if someone said "Hola" means "What's your name?") Even if the translation has none of the words that the original text had, if the same exact meaning is being conveyed then there is nothing bad about it. Translations for books, tv shows, etc. aren't really the best way to learn a language too since you kind of need literal translations nearly all of the time. It is a GOOD way, but not the best. Depending.

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