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Immersion: Rewrite vs translation

I would like some guidance from others about how you discern the difference between a rewrite or paraphrase and a translation.

Some people seem to prefer to just re-author the sentence so that it's closer to how they would have said something similar. Others want to make the English sentence slavishly conform to the source. I find myself doing both, arbitrarily.

What do you think is the best approach?

May 3, 2013



I am a professional translator from English into Russian and can share my experience and some standards that are recognized in the field of translation.

For technical texts like user manuals the language has to be as precise as possible. There are usually glossaries of terms and you can't use synonyms if the word is in the glossary. You can't add anything or remove anything. Of course this does not mean you have to use exactly the same word order that is used in the source, but you have to convey every concept that is present there. Once as a beginner I translated "mp3 files" with something like "files encoded in mp3 format" and was told off for adding the words that were not there.

You also have to take cultural differencies into account. For example, Russian is much less personal than English, so we don't write "your computer" but just "computer" (in Russian). Omitting "your" is not a mistake here but adherence to the standards of style.

For articles or marketing texts like booklets and leaflets we have to use more "beautiful" style. The language has to be rich, natural and pleasant to read. However, we are still not allowed to remove any information or add anything. We can't rewrite 5 English sentences with 3 Russian ones: as a rule it is one target sentence for one source sentence, only very rarely they are split or combined.

I have never translated literature, but of course a good fiction translation is impossible if the translator is not a good writer himself. Here, the language must be as rich and vivid as possible and not only convey the facts but emotions as well.

Now comes Wikipedia. The goal is usually to make some article available in another language. This can be achieved either by straightforward translation from the source language or by collecting the facts and writing the article from scratch. It can also be a combination of both. People who use Wikipedia don't ask for exact translations, they just need reliable and accurate information in their language. However, if you translate Wikipedia in some sentence-by-sentence editor like here on Duolingo, it is the best practice to make it accurate. "Accurate" does not mean "literal", style has to be as good and natural as possible. It would be also the best for other users to learn from accurate translations.

Another point I want to make is respect. First of all, a translator should respect the text author. It is above all his or her work, the translator only acting as a means to make the original text available for people from other countries and cultures. It is not translator's business to judge if the text is good or bad, helpful or useless, reliable or false. He has to translate it, that's all.

Second, a translator or editor should respect his or her fellow translators. Perhaps this rule is not official, but it is impolite to rewrite someone's translation unless it contains mistakes or inaccuracies or is absolutely poorly phrased. Rewriting valid translations is unnecessary work for you and can create inconsistencies across many articles in the project.

For people who read the translations of others here on Duolingo, I'd like to suggest the following algorithm:

  • Is the current translation correct (i.e. is the meaning right, is it in adequate tense, are the words translated correctly, is not something omitted or added)? If no, edit it. If yes, proceed to the next step.

  • Is the style of the translation acceptable? If you saw this sentence on Wikipedia, would you click "edit" to rewrite the style because you can't bear it or can it be accepted as is? If it can be accepted, just confirm it. If it is absolutely bad, rewrite it.


As a qualified interpreter who does some translation work, I agree with your guidance with one small observation. Since the translations on Duolingo are intended to be complementary to the Duolingo language learning process, they need to be rather more literal than would perhaps be appropriate in some of the circumstances you mention. The translation needs to be literal enough for people who are not proficient in the target language to be able to connect the two passages in their minds. Reading of parallel passages is an effective tool for tool for language learning when that connection can be made.

P.S. When do you think we're likely to see a Duolingo Russian course?


I agree. I wrote about the general translation experience and mentioned different approaches, but concerning Duolingo translations I have the same point of view as you. The translations should not be as literal as to be very crude and awkward, though, because they are also intended for the customers who order them; but I'm sure you don't mean that.

As to the Russian course, it can only be available after the team makes it possible for the users to add languages. This is still in plans and not expected very soon. The developers are not going to add any more languages for now, but improve the ones already present.


Thank you for such useful answers!

Personally, I like other Duolingo users tweaking my sentences, especially if it's a clear improvement in the terms that you outlined. There's often a very small difference between good and mediocre, and my first try is usually not absolutely bad, but it is often not the best.


I agree - just so long as they improve it!

Some of the articles I've translated or corrected so far have contained very technical terms (e.g. motorcycle parts or classical architectural features) and I've spent quite a bit of time researching the correct English words. It's annoying therefore when someone who obviously hasn't done the research changes it.

On the other hand sometimes they add a shade of meaning which has escaped me. Swings and roundabouts, I guess!


I've had that happen too and it is annoying but I'm also grateful for those who help with nuance. As you say "swings and roundabouts".

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