In Part 1 of Dealing with an Ambiguity, we discussed the process that should be followed when you are faced with an ambiguity while translating. I told you that, when I am faced with such a dilemma, I run through a simple hierarchy of meaning, then style, then simplicity. In the last part we dealt with the first step, meaning, so in Part 2 I present to you the aspects of style and simplicity.
Once you have the meaning, then try to match the style. If the work you’re translating is a work of fiction or simply a work written in a distinct style, you should try to match it – but only after you’ve managed to capture the meaning of the work. The idea is to bring a work wholly into another language, and part of that is to bring the poetry of the words if possible. This is often a judgment call, as the language of the work often dictates style.
If you have maintained the meaning and matched the style, then consider how your words flow. Meaning is paramount, and an accurate style will be appreciated by your readers, but once you’ve accomplished these things you do have to take into account how your writing flows, how easily it is understood. If you have a choice of phrasing or construction that simply reads better, and doesn’t violate the meaning or style you’ve maintained, you should choose it and eliminate awkward constructions. However, if an awkward construction is the only way to maintain the meaning and/or style, do not sacrifice those goals for a smoother flow.
Keep it simple, stupid – avoid unnecessary vocabulary upgrades or flourishes. It’s tempting to write at a higher level in your translation than your subject matter. Don’t do it. The more closely you match the level of writing in the original, the more likely the final product will truly match the intention of the original author. Remember, this is not your writing that is being judged, and it is not the writing itself that is of value, but rather the ideas it conveys.
Be as brief as possible. If you have a choice of how to translate something, always choose the shortest and most succinct version. Unnecessary words invite misinterpretation, and blur the line between translation and creation. This is not your work. You should merely be a conduit between the original and the audience, and you should let the ideas and words of the original stand on their own as much as possible. You have to balance this with the style you are trying to mimic, of course, but keep in mind that meaning is listed first here – always try to boil everything down to the intended meaning of the original work.
Ambiguity is a fact of translation work. People unthinkingly use very vague wording in their writing, even in technical or business writing, relying on context and familiarity to carry their ideas. Also, many technicians or professionals are very poor writers despite their skills and talents, and their writing can be challenging to translate. But if you remind yourself to adhere to the meaning, then try to capture the style, all the while pursuing simplicity; you will be able to bring even the most ambiguous ideas across in your translation.