Translation: Art or Science?

When people hear the word translation, either they get confused and think you said “transition”, or they think it refers to verbal interpreting. So then, what exactly is translation?

Translation refers to taking a source text and rewriting it in another language using the same context and tone of voice. As easy as that sounds (just plunk it into Google Translate, right?), it’s surprisingly complex and translators actually need college and university training to become legitimate, accredited professionals. Plus, there’s a reason why even Google Translate often sounds wonky; translation isn’t an exact science, but more of a subtle art.

As translators, we can’t just translate word for word.

It’s impossible and would result in nonsensical gibberish. Every language comes chock-full of idioms and sayings that are unique to the culture and history of the speakers. “It’s a piece of cake”. “When pigs fly”. “There’s no use crying over spilt milk”. We have to account for context, because people often write vague sentences that could have multiple meanings. If you’ve ever seen those hilariously terrible translation mistakes, then it was probably a literal translation that woefully disregarded the sentence’s context.

So what, you might ask? Understanding what a text is trying to say is just as important as getting the right terminology down. Sure, it’s good to know when to use “truck” and when to use “lorry”, but it’s also pretty important to understand that “my fridge isn’t running” can’t be translated literally or you’d have some pretty confused refrigerator repairmen.

Once you (hopefully) understand what your source text is trying to say, now you’ve got to convey it in a way that reads naturally—as if it were originally written in that language (no easy feat!). Poorly done translations often end up being robotic and awkward, with none of the tone of voice and perspective of the original text—especially if the author added any sort of flair like sarcasm, slang, or double entendres that are dang near impossible to translate.

This is where the art factor comes in. You need a certain level of creativity to think of ways to get around the fact that “the Monday blues” doesn’t have an exact equivalent in any other language. You also need a strong command of the target language to be able to write in a readable and engaging way in order to do justice by the source text author—and not butcher their masterpiece.

Translators, against popular belief, aren’t just robotic humanoids looking up word after word in the dictionary to produce a completed text. While we do love our Merriam-Webster’s (maybe a little too much), translators also need to be strong writers in their maternal language. And what is writing, if not a form of art?

When you think of everything in the world that gets translated, it starts to click. Sure, there are mind-numbing translations of HR policies and car owner manuals, but books, poetry and screenplays get translated too. Hey, the Harry Potter series alone was translated into 68 different languages. That’s a hell of a lot of creative ways to say “Muggle”.