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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
  • @ShreevatsaR: Even translations of works with infelicitous prose style that improve on the original (e.g., of James Fenimore Cooper)? Even translations of incomprehensible German philosophers which simplify the language and sentence structure so as to make them comprehensible? – Peter Shor Apr 22 at 1:19
  • @PeterShor Along the dimension of being faithful/producing the same effect as the original, an “improvement” (e.g. if one comes to think that Derrida/Lacan are models of clarity) can be considered poor translation. The poet P. Lal preferred the term “transcreation”. Speaking of German philosophers, Gian-Carlo Rota mentions publishing a paper that was some paragraphs of Husserl with examples added, and being praised for his novel and original ideas. – ShreevatsaR Apr 22 at 3:03
  • I recall from childhood reading the Moomin novels of Scandinavian author Tove Jansson, in the original English translation by Ernst Benn Ltd, and being captivated by the beauty of the translation. I can't speak Finnish, so I have no idea whether this was a faithful translation or not, but the English text was easily the thing which made the greatest impression on me of any books that I read in childhood. Even today I am unclear whether the beauty of the language was due to the author or to the translator - or to both! So you can't tell whether you're reading a faithful translation! – Ed999 May 23 at 18:18
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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
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    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
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    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
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    Another option is to read multiple translations to see how they compare. – Eric Dec 2 '10 at 10:35
  • @nohat: Not true, actually. You often can't tell whether a sentence in English sounds peculiar because of the translator's lack of fluency in English or because the original novel or source is badly written. I've read a good number of translations from German where the English grammar was reasonable (I knew the translator slightly, he was a well educated American, he wasn't a foreigner who was unfamiliar with English), but I got the impression that the German text was simply badly written, and that the translator was doing a good job, he was conveying accurately the poor quality of the source. – Ed999 May 14 '18 at 8:23
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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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I offer the following possibility, in the hope both that it will make you smile, and that you will thereby recall it if the need should arise.

I challenge you to read (almost any) English translation of Jules Verne's novel Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea without wincing.

You might not get past the title page!

The French title sous le mer ought by rights to be translated as beneath the sea, implying a distance travelled horizontally, whereas the standard English translation tends to make you wonder whether the French actually believed the ocean to be 20,000 leagues deep (that's a depth of 60,000 miles for the uninitiated, not 20,000 fathoms).

There are some equally good laughs to be obtained from the standard English translation of Alexander Dumas's novel The Three Musketeers - not least the fact that the standard English translation of the title suggests that Messrs Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D'Artagnan (four men, please note) are only three people.

Both novels, even in modern translations two centuries after they were first published, are largely literal translations from the French, with a wince factor capable of striking you in every paragraph.

  • The French title of The Three Musketeers is Les Trois Mousquetaires. Literally The Three Musketeers. There is really no other way to translate it. And no, the English translators did not add an extra musketeer. The original French novel and title have exactly the same problem that you're complaining about. – Peter Shor Apr 20 at 0:22
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    So this answer shows the impossibility of telling a good translation from a bad translation without knowing the original language, because despite the answer, the title The Three Musketeers is a good translation (in fact, the only faithful translation possible) of the title Les Trois Mousquetaires. – Peter Shor Apr 22 at 1:13
  • Well said Peter, I applaud your logic wholeheartedly. I still think that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a daft translation of the French title, but I'm grateful to learn why The Three Musketeers was so titled. I can't help wondering why publishers in the UK/US/Oz are so in love with the truly dreadful 19th Century translations of the text (of both Verne's and Dumas's novels), when they really are mere literal translations of the French text, and make me wince in every paragraph. Are these "classics" so little read now that it is not worth the cost of commissioning a decent translation? – Ed999 Apr 25 at 23:37
  • There are new translations of The Three Musketeers, at least. (As well as a number of Dumas' other classics.) I don't know whether anybody is retranslating Jules Verne. – Peter Shor Apr 25 at 23:41
  • Thank you: that's a terrific review of Dumas's novel, makes me glad I read even a bad translation of it! It's clearly a much better novel than I remembered!! I will try to get around to reading the 2006 translation, which sounds like a real winner. – Ed999 Apr 25 at 23:53

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