Is Faithfulness Overrated?

No matter how faithful to the original a translation could be, some experts consider that translations are always an improved version of such original.

This is one of the aspects of what is known as translational improvement which could be understood in different ways. At a superficial level, a translation improves the original text by merely enabling it to reach an audience it would otherwise fail to reach. At deeper levels, translations may improve the original text on the basis of ethical, theoretical, cultural, philosophical and/or other considerations.

But let’s focus on a more practical side of this matter!

Now, two questions that may come to mind.

1. Shouldn’t a translation always be 100% faithful to the original?

Many people would probably answer “Yes” but some might doubt about the frequency or the exact percentage… Always? A 100%? That’s debatable, isn’t it?

The level or the degree of faithfulness, abstract as it may seem, is hard to measure due to several factors such as the mere fact that the notion of faithfulness itself may be perceived differently by every person.

On the other hand, there could be numerous cases in which “always” and “100%” are not even possible or realistic.

2. Should a translator/interpreter improve the original text?

Most — if not all — sources would answer “No” because, again, faithfulness to the original, a key principle here, can be compromised. And as a result, quality and accuracy will be judged differently as well. Let alone any ethical, moral and legal implications.

In practice, however, professionals modify the original when needs be. The main message is not changed. But the ways of conveying that message sometimes are modified, whether greatly or slightly, for several reasons. And those changes are, per se, improvements because they allow the translation to adapt to the target language, culture, grammatical rules, period of time, etc.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common reasons:

grammar — Grammatical rules change from language to language. This difference forces the translator/interpreter to alter the text in order to adapt it to the requirements of the target language. And such adaptation often implies grammatical modifications which are so common that have become a standard translation technique called transposition.

idiomaticness — Sometimes it is impossible to convey the exact same message with the exact same words, so an alteration is needed to adhere to the rules, patterns and norms of the target language and culture. This is particularly obvious when translating idiomatic expressions, jokes, proverbs, puns, etc. where a modulation is often needed in order to achieve an appropriate result.

culture — The translated text is often altered to reach a culture (think of “culture” as a much wider notion than just a language or nationality.) For example, if you translate for French-speaking Canada, you are not translating into French. You are translating into Canadian French. And that goes beyond the linguistic differences from European French and into the realm of the Quebecois culture as a whole.

region — Regional variants are not a foreign concept to anyone in this field. Even the common layman more often than not knows that languages change based on geographical location, namely American English vs. British English, European Portuguese vs. Brazilian Portuguese, European Spanish vs. Latin American Spanish, and so on and so forth. Every translator/interpreter is, therefore, fully aware of this regardless of the language pair(s) they work with. And the more countries a language is spoken in, the more differences you will see. As a result, the translation is usually adapted to the target region.

ideology — Sadly, many times translations distance themselves from the original to serve a ruling ideology, political view, religious belief, etc. And although this alteration is perceived as an abomination by the general public, it is considered an improvement by the representatives of the ruling ideology the translator is trying to please. For example, the Cuban edition of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was translated in Cuba with a strong intention to lead readers to believe that the Italian mafia was a byproduct of American capitalist society. As a result, it lacks the freshness of other Spanish editions that did not have a political agenda.

censorship and/or self-censorship — Closely related to ideology, censorship and self-censorship are among the extralinguistic factors that make a translation go away from the original. It’s just another sad example of the control exerted by politics, ideology, religion, morality and legality over language, and consequently, over the faithfulness of a translation to its original version. This departure from the original may be intentional or not and may be imposed or self-inflicted (whether consciously or unconsciously).

accuracy  Sometimes, the original source is not entirely correct. If the error needs to be transferred to the target language for academic, scientific, technical, political, economic or any other professional purpose, the error will definitely be carried over in the translation to foster debates and/or refutations. But if such error is obviously accidental, the translator/interpreter is very likely to correct it for the sake of the quality of the “final product.” Let’s say, for example, you are translating an ad for a retailer and there is a mathematical mistake in the calculation of the price, or a textbook that has a grammatical/spelling mistake, it is your responsibility to (i) let the provider of the original text know about it and (ii) make sure your translation is correct.

educational level — This may apply more to interpreting than to translation because many times you do not know who will read your translation. But if you are interpreting for two speakers of different educational level and either (or both) of them can not lower or raise their register to a “happy medium” so to speak, you inevitably have to do so for the sake of communication. As a result, your version will be altered to properly reach its respective audience. Medical interpreters in the United States may relate to this when they serve as a bridge between an American doctor and a less educated immigrant patient.

business/marketing — For marketing, business and advertising purposes, a translation has to change according to several factors such as demographic (age, ethnicity, nationality, etc.), economic (buying power, etc.), medium (TV, radio, flyer, social media, etc.) and so on and so forth. The need for this changes is vital because (i) the way the message is conveyed could directly impact the marketability of a product or service and (ii) such changes may even be required by the client.

accentNeedless to say, this relates to interpreting rather than translation. It is not something that happens frequently but there may be occasions where an interpreter may need to either use or refrain from using certain words, ways of pronouncing, specific interjections, mannerisms, etc. for the sake of adapting to a particular accent, or at least as a courtesy towards a certain speaker. For the most part, it is recommended to avoid this change, as it may come across as a disrespectful imitation, but there are interpreters in Europe who are capable of flexing their accents depending on whom they are talking to.

Now, as said before, these are only some of the reasons leading to a translation being changed from the original. There are others, and I am sure that many professionals will have his or her list. Which ones would you add to this list?

Feel free to comment and share your viewpoints!


























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