Ready to cringe?
Take a look at this excerpt from an English translation of the Jordanian penal code:
Phrases and words contained in this Law have meanings assigned to it below unless evidence shows otherwise:
The word (wound) means: every cut or slash which gashes the external human body tissues. For the purposes of this definition a tissue is considered to be external if it could be touched without the need to cut slash any other tissue."
If you are a discerning reader, you probably noticed several errors in this excerpt. The translator has used parentheses as they are used in Arabic - to indicate proper nouns - resulting in an awkward overuse of this punctuation common in poorly translated documents. They've used the word "it" to refer to "phrases and words", which is of course plural. The term "evidence" is used incorrectly here. And of course there is the use of the noun "cut" as a subject for "gashes", when only the sharp object itself can gash, and the use of "cut slash", perhaps a sloppy edit.
I don't point out these phrases to mock or shame the translator, who is anonymous and who surely was just trying to get through a job without the opportunity to get feedback from a qualified editor.
I'm highlighting this because it is uploaded to a Jordanian government website, that of the Anti-Human Trafficking Committee.* This may be considered a semi-official translation and is actually one of the only partial translations of the penal code that exists on a Jordanian website. If you were translating something that quoted the Jordanian penal code, and you did a little research, you would find this existing translation. This is why I put "official" in quotes above - sometimes it's not entirely clear whether this is the official one, or just the only one!
Why do official translations matter?
One cardinal rule of translation is that consistency must be preserved. A certain term should be translated the same way whenever it occurs in the document, unless the context changes its meaning or it absolutely must be altered for fluency.
This is perhaps especially true in legal texts. In a document where certain terms actually have legal significance, it's important not to mix them up. Perhaps "murder" entails a certain punishment but "killing" or "homicide" are more broad terms. If you know that the text is referring to homicide, it would be legally significant to occasionally translate the same word as "murder"; the reader will think the terms are distinct in the original and may act upon the legal distinction.
This is a straightforward concept when we're talking about terminology within a document. But what about terminology between documents? What if I'm translating a text that quotes Article 1 of the Jordanian penal code, and the official translation is what was quoted above? Do I copy it?
Theoretically, the consistency principle still holds. Your reader is probably not going to just use your text; they likely are working with other resources to understand a topic. Since the point of translation is communication, you want to give your reader as much information as possible, including that what they read about elsewhere is referring to the same thing that you're discussing.
If you see this agency, the Anti-Human Trafficking Committee, mentioned in your text, but you translate it as the "Committee to Combat Human Trafficking", you are misleading your reader. A reasonable person would assume that if it has a different name, it's a different thing.
So, in general, if there is an existing translation, you want to match it. The one that holds the most weight is generally the official translation, or at least the one posted on the government website. Easy, right?
But what if the official translation is... terrible?
Arab countries are pretty notorious for having sprawling bureaucracies. A certain government I often work with texts from has a plethora of commissions, committees, departments, etc. Every one of these entities will probably be handling their own translations. Some of them may hire excellent translators; others may allocate less budget to this task and hire the least expensive option. Again, I struggle with whether to call these translations "official", but they are sponsored by the government in some way.
I actually know this to be the case because I worked on the annual reports of two ministries from the same country last year.
One was a very involved project with several rounds of translation and editing done by a team of translators and graduate students, all native English speakers. The other was a task I received with a very quick turnaround time to edit a non-native speaker's translation of the ministry's report. The text I got was riddled with errors, and to make it sound natural, I would've had to rewrite the whole thing. I did my best with the time allotted and sent back an acceptable document, as was my job, but certainly nothing exemplary like the report for the other ministry.
The one thing these two ministries shared was a commitment to using existing official translations of terms and phrases. But because of past work like that of Ministry #2, a lot of the existing translations were simply awful. They didn't convey the correct meaning or were grammatically nonsensical. Sometimes, one entity would have multiple official translations present on their own website!
I won't give any examples here, because I'm not fond of picking apart the flaws of past or potential employers, but what resulted was a real conundrum.
Should I copy the existing official translation, to preserve that all-important consistency? Or should I change it to be more readable and correct? Both are key principles in translation. Which takes precedence?
Communication is key
I mentioned above that the point of translation is communication. Among all the details of translation theory, I've honed in on this concept in practice to guide my decisions when I'm actually translating. I can't possibly give the reader all of the information (here I mean not just facts but also style and emotions) present in the original. But I'm trying to get as close as I possibly can.
One surprising way to do this is to focus on the opposite: don't confuse the reader! If something is odd or distracting, this may hinder the communication process. On the other hand, if they can't match terms from your text to terms from an official source, you are not giving them all the information they need to use your translation in a functional way.
Regarding official or quasi-official translations, the best approach is to consider the terms and phrases on a case-by-case basis. Consider the best way to avoid "translation loss" and confusion while optimizing the amount of functional information the English reader receives.
With the actual names of government agencies, the value of the reader knowing that you're referring to a certain entity far outweighs the information they might gain from readability. A reader may be expected to understand that translations of names can be wonky, and could possibly already be translated. For practical purposes, that communicating that consistent information is more important.
However, for official translations like the one quoted above, there is much less reason to copy the translation in use, especially if there are blatant grammatical errors. Perhaps sticking close to it is advisable so the reader knows they're the same document if they see them side-by-side, but distracting errors will hinder the communication you're going for. All of the issues I mentioned in the introduction are things I would change if I was quoting the legislation in my own translation.
There are some gray areas, like if the name of the entity really is blatantly incorrect (so bad that the reader can't tell the purpose), or if it's something like a slogan. Sometimes, well-meaning legal drafters even write in English translations of certain terms - especially in the definitions section - that may be completely wrong.
In each instance, I would decide what information is most valuable to communicate to the reader, and what can be sacrificed to get them that information. As a last resort, if the unclear official translation and your clear rendering are both equally important, a translator's note can be used.
Of course, I always ask my client in the event of any uncertainty. You never know if the purpose the text is being used for makes some sort of information crucial and something else irrelevant.
Thank you for reading! If you've made it this far, please leave a comment below with your thoughts, and connect with me on LinkedIn. I always love hearing from new people!