How do you approach ambiguity, that moment where you realize the words you’re translating could mean a number of different things? You have a duty as a translator to render it as accurately as you can. You have to have a system for resolving these sorts of problems. Here’s what I run through whenever I’m in doubt about how to translate something, whether it’s a paragraph long or a single word: It boils down to a simple hierarchy of meaning, then style, then simplicity:
Don’t change meaning. This is the most important rule a translator can ever follow. Your job is to translate, which implies an accuracy of ideas. You personal feelings on a matter should always be divorced from the final work. If you can translate a concept several ways, always choose the way that hones as closely as possible to the original meaning of the work as you understand it. Above all, resist the urge to choose a translation that undermines the opinion or position of the original writer – or that augments it. Stay neutral.
Don’t improve. It’s tempting, sometimes, to try to make a work better as you go, but this again violates the trust placed in us to accurately render the original in a new language. If you have a choice of translations, pick the one that is closest to the original, warts and all.
Be as plain as possible. Sometimes a very pretty way of saying something pops into your head, and you have an opportunity to make your translation of a sentence or paragraph very beautiful. As a rule, this is a mistake. The prettier a turn of phrase the more apt it is to be misinterpreted, and even if the meaning seems plain to you, unnecessary flourishes invite misreading. Keep your translations as plain as possible.
Use common expressions as appropriate. If one of your choices in translating a phrase or sentence is a very common expression that perfectly captures the meaning and will be familiar to the readers of your translated document, use it – even if it is not strictly grammatically correct. Your goal is always understanding, not necessarily beautiful or even correct writing.
This post will be continued in Dealing with an Ambiguity - Part 2.