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Proper Translation Technique

What is the approach people should use to translate phrases? Should we aim to translate something literally or should we translate the phrase how it is said in the native language? For instance, "por qué estás tan raro?" translated more literally would be something like "For why are you so rare?", but in English we would say "Why are you so weird?". This is just a basic example.

September 2, 2012



IMO, always try to go for the cleanest and most natural translation to the target language. Way too many of the top translations are completely literal and make little to no sense. I think it defeats the purpose of this site because if literal translations were the goal, we could rely solely on Duobot and google translate, et al to do it for us.

All that being said, sometimes it is really hard to create a natural translation that reads well in (English). Sometimes this is due to a not-so-well written source document and sometimes it is because the meaning of certain idioms is not apparent.


Gumbee has given a great answer to this, which I will try to add to. Translating is as much art as it is technical detail (tenses, for example). This is one reason that computers are so bad at translating. When translating, remember that the audience is using the target language. The goal is to translate the ideas as clearly, and as faithfully to the author's intent, as possible. I completely agree that too many top translations are far too literal and are actually not all that good. This problem is significantly exacerbated by the fact that doing a translation 'too well' is punished with zero points because the program doesn't know a good translation when it sees it; it is basing its decision on bad computer translations. This is especially a problem for those of us that mostly do new documents, that no one else has done yet, where the bar has not been raised yet. It is dispiriting to do a translation that you know is solid and be told that it is beyond the capacity of their dictionaries to know that. I have gotten away from doing too much 'polishing', because I get nothing for it every time. For example, simply rearranging the clauses can make the translation much stronger - but doing that is a big gamble. The software doesn't handle that sort of thing at all well. Idioms are also a big problem and I do not understand why I haven't been able to find a single solid reference for researching Spanish idioms. I know that there are thousands, but still.


I try to capture the meaning in good English at an equivalent level of formality or informality as the original. I would use "Why are you so weird?" or "Why are you so strange?" and not "For why are you so rare?" (which might be okay if the original were poetry, but I don't think I'm ready to try translating poetry).


I don't think you should vote based on British vs US English.

As an Australian I am not going to start learning how to misspell things to be consistent if Americans are also translating the same document. Anyway, the differences between UK & US spelling is something that could be cleanly handled by a computer.


I vote up translations whether they are British or English... for instance what we call "Eggplant" Brits seem to call "Aubergine". Either way, I voted them both up. It shouldn't matter which colloquialism is used as long as it is correct. Also, I try to translate as literal as possible, as long as it makes sense. If there is a Spanish word that closely resembles an English word, I will used that word instead of a more popular word that means the same thing. Just because it is easier to remember. For instance, if the Spanish sentence used "automovil", I will use the translation of "automobile", however, if "coche" is used, than I will translate as "car".


Something I would like answered is if you should suggest an edit for British-English translations to change it to American English, or vice-versa. Sometimes I see top voted translations on one sentence in American, and the next in British. Not good for consistency.

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