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The difference between stylistic mistakes and translation errors

February 05, 2018

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Broadly speaking, there are two types of errors a translator can make: stylistic mistakes and mistranslations. In this blog post, we will look at the serious repercussions these errors could lead to.

Writing with style

What do I mean by ‘style’? Style includes tone or register (formal/informal) – which is often indicated by word choice (compare ‘an issue of utmost importance’ with ‘a key issue’) – and the effect a text has on the reader (persuasive, conversational, entertaining etc.). Style effects how engaged a reader is with a text, how well the information contained therein is conveyed and can communicate a lot about a company or brand – so getting it right is crucial.

One of a translator’s greatest abilities, therefore, is to adapt their style to suit a specific text. Translators usually have more than one specialism (legal, marketing, financial etc.), regularly produce multiple types of texts and work for various clients, all of which can require different styles. In this way, translators are similar to copywriters, whose main concern is to make sure their content is appropriate for their readers. Both professionals need to have an excellent knowledge of style and genre conventions, which means considering how is this type of text usually written, what will my audience be expecting and, if necessary, a client’s style guide/preferences.

Style in translation

Along with content, sometimes the style of a text also needs to be ‘translated’. For example, if the source (text to be translated) culture has a more formal or informal approach to a genre than the target (translated text) culture, the translator needs to adapt the style to make it fit in with target norms. These norms are constantly changing as language evolves – new words are introduced while others become unfashionable and grammatical rules that were once steadfast are now almost defunct (think split infinitives). Translators therefore need to be well versed in these norms and linguistic changes, which is why we only use native speaker translators at AST to ensure our translations read naturally and fluently to create the desired effect on the reader.

Mistranslation

We have all seen the often very amusing examples of mistranslations on the Internet such as the Chinese to English translation “Loveable but pitiful grass is under your foot”, or more accurately: “Fragile Lawn: keep off the grass”. We can spot this kind of mistranslation a mile off – they don’t read naturally and can be completely nonsensical. However, it’s the translation errors you can’t spot that pose the biggest problem.

If a translator misunderstands the meaning of a sentence, or even a single word, the resulting translation can have far-reaching repercussions. For example, we regularly translate contracts here at AST – from supplier contracts to non-disclosure agreements – where one or more parties may not speak the source language and so need an accurate translation in order to understand exactly what they are signing. More serious still are the implications of mistranslating details of patient medical histories or diagnoses, where human life may be at risk.

To minimise the chance of these errors occurring, our internal and external team of translators and proofreaders is experienced in a variety of specialisms so, beyond an excellent knowledge of the source language, they really know about what they’re translating. And it’s up to our project managers to analyse a source text and select the right translator and proofreader with the relevant expertise for that specific text.

What’s the difference?

A stylistic error is one that goes against cultural linguistic norms of how that kind of text is supposed to be written. If the style, or tone, of a translation or parts of a translation doesn’t fit what the reader is expecting to read, this can be distracting, confusing or simply fail to have the same effect as the source text.

A translation error is the result of a translator’s misunderstanding of the meaning or sense of the source text. This results in a misrepresentation of what the author intended to convey and runs the risk of spreading incorrect information.

Avoiding errors is just one step in producing high-quality translations. For more information about this, see our blog on “What makes a good translation”. If this blog has piqued your interest in how we reduce the risk of errors in our translations, download a copy of our new e-book “The Translation Guide” here to find out more about our translation process.

The Translation Guide

Bernadette Roach

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