Translation Quality Assessment: From Subjectivity to Objectivity
So far in our Blog Series exploring the why, what and how of assessing translation quality, we’ve discussed the importance of assessing translation quality (Part 1), learned how to measure errors or defects (Part 2), gained an understanding of the categories and severity levels of errors (Part 3), and surveyed ten critical success factors for planning quality translations (Part 4). In this Part 5, we’ll turn to a sometimes-overlooked aspect of assessing translation quality: recognizing the subjectivity of translation in order to assess quality objectively.
Subjectivity of Translation
What do we mean by the “subjectivity of translation”? Let’s start with a mental exercise. Imagine you just got the news that you landed a big new contract for your company and you know your boss will be incredibly happy once she hears the good news. Now, fill in the blank: “I can’t wait to ________ my boss that I landed the big new contract!” What word did you pick? Tell, inform, notify, advise? Or maybe you would say “I can’t wait to let my boss know that I landed the big new contract!”? There are so many ways to get the exact same message across! The point here is that language is not an exact science. From synonyms to idioms to regionalisms, there is rarely a single, “correct” way to communicate a thought or idea.
In the context of the “subjectivity” of translation, then, let’s take our exercise a step further. Imagine the phrase “I can’t wait to inform my boss that I landed the big new contract!” is in a document to be translated into Spanish. Spanish, just like English, has a host of synonyms for the word “inform,” where the underlying meaning is to apprise someone of information: informar, avisar, communicar, and poner al corriente. Your translator chooses “informar.” Your Spanish-speaking reviewer would’ve preferred “communicar.” Is the choice of “informar” an “error”?
The point of our exercise is probably pretty clear: in translation, there is a big difference between “right and wrong” and “preferred.” There is often a preferred way to communicate a thought or idea, but that doesn’t necessarily make an alternative choice “wrong.” Preferences are highly subjective, and vary from person to person, brand to brand, region to region, language to language, and culture to culture.
Objectively Assessing the Subjective
So, how can we objectively assess the quality of a translation when there is so much subjectivity involved? We suggest three steps: Acknowledge, Collaborate, Assess.
The first step toward objectively assessing translation quality is to acknowledge subjectivity. Acknowledging that translation work involves making choices between equally “correct” options leads you naturally to step two: collaborate with your translation team about your audience, style and tone preferences, and preferred terminology.
Your translation team wants to make certain your audience receives your message, exactly as you intended to deliver it. To choose between the different ways a word or phrase might be translated “correctly,” your translation team needs more than just the source document. They need to know your goals and intentions for the finished product. Consider, for example:
- Who is your intended audience? Will the reader be a Ph.D. Physicist or a grade school science student? Is your audience the general public, or your internal staff?
- Where is your intended audience? For languages spoken in various regions of the world, different word choices may be needed to avoid regionalisms that would confuse parts of your audience. On the other hand, if your audience is concentrated in a specific region, using local regionalisms may help your message resonate even better.
- What is your preferred writing style and tone? Are you going for business formal? Fun and casual? Somber and serious? If you have style guides and/or branding guidelines (Critical Factor #6 from Part 4 of this Blog Series), be sure to share them with your translation team.
- Do you have vocabulary or acronyms unique to your business? Businesses often develop their own vocabulary – whether using an existing word in a unique way, creating a word that won’t show up in any dictionary, or developing their own shorthand or acronyms. Maybe your new dual-function product has “fortitwo’d.” This really only works in English, where “two” replaces the “tu” sound in “fortitude.” How should your translator translate this word, when it probably won’t be nearly as clever in another language?
Collaborating with your translation team will enable them to use their expert knowledge of the domain, target language, and target culture(s) to choose best options to deliver your message to your audience in the way you intend.
If you’ve followed Steps 1 and 2, then you/your reviewer will be ready to objectively assess the quality of the final translation product while keeping the subjectivity of the translation process in mind. You’ll be able to differentiate between “errors” and “preferential choices.” When you come to a word choice that doesn’t seem quite right, instead of counting it as “wrong,” you’ll consider whether your translator choose that way because that choice would be best for the specific audience in a given region. If you feel strongly that a different choice would work better for you, you’ll be able to communicate that to your translation team and incorporate that choice into your style guide for future use.
A cautionary note: If your reviewer doesn’t have the same background information on your target audience, preferred style/tone, and preferred terminology, the review probably won’t go well. The reviewer must have the right context in which to judge whether the choices made by the translation team align with your goals. Similarly, your reviewer must have the right skills to assess the quality of the translated product. It’s pretty likely that a Ph.D. Chemist native to China with a secondary degree in the English language will make better choices in translating a technical document for a pharmaceutical company than an American college student studying Chinese in school. For more on Client-Side Reviewers, check out our blog, Best Practices of the Client-Side Reviewer.
Everyone who needs translation deserves quality translation. By acknowledging the subjectivity of translation and collaborating with your translation team, you can objectively assess translation quality.