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How literally should we translate articles?

I know there are many idiomatic expressions in the articles to be translated in the Immersion tab, but my question concerns the ordinary words and phrases in the articles.

Is the objective to translate the article as written, or to provide an article written as if I had written it in my own words?

In my work with an online proofreading project, we were directed to read the original text image and type it in exactly as it appeared, including mistakes or grammar and antiquated usages. I had assumed the translation of articles here should be approached the same general way (with the exception of idiomatic expressions).

Instead, I see that some translations I have made have been reverted by the previous translator, but they do not include all the words in the source material. The meaning is not necessarily different, but it is a matter of style.

While the wording chosen by the previous translator may be more elegant or economical than the source material, it does not match it.

So what is our guideline for translating these articles? Thank you in advance for help with this.

September 24, 2013



This has been asked before, and generally the answer is to give the best translation, not necessarily the most direct translation.


When I took a translation class in college, the grading of our assignments was broken down like this:

1) Interpretation: Source text's words and idioms rendered accurately within an acceptable range of possible translations. Passages translated neither too literally nor too freely. Tone and register are conveyed accurately.

2) Product: The translated text is internally coherent. It does not present logical or linguistic obstacles to the reader's understanding. Proper attention to target language spelling, punctuation, grammar. [Note: target language punctuation, grammar, not source language. As Jfgordy notes, Spanish sentences are often much longer than English ones, and punctuation often needs to be added in the translation.]

For 1), you could debate about what is too literal and what is too free. My personal opinion is that a translation is too literal if it sounds stiff, awkward, or incorrect in the target language. Look at the translation of the sentence by itself, not in comparison to the source text, and ask: Is this how I would convey this idea in English? If the answer is "No", then your translation is too literal. You are aiming to convey the meaning of the source text, but not necessarily the exact words the source text used. If your translation is too free, then you are straying too far from the meaning of the source text. When you look at the two sentences side-by-side, it's not clear where the translation came from.


I would like to know this as well because it is my understanding to translate the Spanish that I am learning into correct English grammar with the English punctuation. Spanish has run on sentences, comma splices, wrong use of colons and no subjects in some of the sentences. The people who are supposed to be reading the English result, will recognize the errors. We have all levels of education as well as age on this site.


A lot of the articles are recipes, and I've noticed that Spanish seems to write them in a "We cut/add/cook" format. The main trend in translating them is to translate them into command form in English, or "Cut the potatoes".

I think this is a good format but needs to be consistent throughout the article. I just finished one article where one sentence had been "corrected" to match the original first person plural, and the rest was in the command form.


I've always tried translating the text to proper idiomatic English instead of word-for-word. However, I often find that my translations get revised into a more direct translation by the other users, which I really don't have a problem.


I've observed that more than a few people appear to make changes for the sake of making changes (and garnering points, I suppose) -- so it's entirely possible that if you do word-for-word someone else will come along and change it to proper idiomatic English anyway.

I try to translate into good English with proper syntax -- it's often changed to some awful word-for-word inverted compound version of the original German by the next person to come along. I don't lose any sleep over it. :-)


As literally as possible while still being good, idiomatic English. That last part covers a lot of ground.


ceaer nailed it. Let's keep in mind what duolingo's business model is, and why we're getting outstanding, free instruction with no ads or BS. No one's going to pay duolingo for stilted, literal translations that sound like they were done by someone who doesn't speak English.


I see one of the problems being that not all people know English punctuation and grammar. There are people of all ages and education on the site, as well as non-native English speakers. I don't understand how it is all going to work in the future.


Good points, jfgordy. There's an interesting discussion on that topic here: http://www.duolingo.com/comment/361341

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