Say What?! Lost in Translation

Dafeenah By Dafeenah, 8th Mar 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Tips

A translation is not always as good as the original text. What you need to know when reading a translated article?

Translation vs Original Text

Being a native English speaker, I have had to rely heavily on translated texts for the majority of my life. I had always assumed a translation was as good as the original. However, certain recent events have led me to believe this is not always the case. I will most likely never be free of the need of translated text,but I have found that by paying attention and checking other translations of the same text I am able to get a better understanding of where the truth lies.


Translators' Agenda

There are often various factors as to why various translations of the same text differ from one another. In my experience, the translator's agenda and/or personal bias is often the leading factor in determining how he translates an article.

The primary reason for this is because in Arabic and Urdu texts for example, one word can have numerous meanings and depending upon how it is placed in the sentence, its suffix/prefix, and other factors will determine which help the reader to determine the actual meaning of the word. However the translator often does not go by the context of the sentence in order to choose the proper word while translating.

If there are two opposite meanings of a particular word, then the translator often chooses the one that best conincides with his own personal beliefs and prejudices even if that meaning totally contradicts the original text. Sometimes the translator may even do this unintentionally. He/she may assume the author of the original text has similar beliefs and without even realizing the translator will place his own opinion above that of the author's.

Translator's Native Language

The second major factor in determining the level of accuracy in a translation is the native language of the translator. Every language has subtles that are only truly understood by a native speaker. Phrases and expressions whose underlying meanings may not be fully comprehended by someone who is not a native speaker of that language.

When a translator is translating a work that is originally in a very expressive language such as Arabic or Urdu, then if his native language is not Arabic or Urdu, he will often not fully understand the expressions that he is reading. While the translator will do his best to interpret them, he/she will never be able to grasp their depth. This will cause his translation to either be totally incorrect or inadequate. While the translator might get close to the actual meaning, he will never be able to fully express what that author of the text had written simply because he doesn't understand fully.

The opposite of this also applies. Say the translator is translating from Urdu to English and Urdu is his native language. While he will do his best, a native English speaker will easily and quickly notice the subtle errors, incorrect usage of a word, or improper use of expression.

Word to Word vs Meaning

The method used by the translator always has an enormous effect upon the final outcome. Try it for yourself. Type the following word into an online translator اسمي

In Arabic the word is "Ismee" or My name is, but the online translator translated it as "nominal". This is because online translators translate word to word not according to meaning, and this often causes them to give an inaccurate translation even though "technically" it may be correct.

Now if a translator does a word to word translation, then his translations will also appear similar to the online translator versions. Technically correct but horribly inaccurate. A good translator must find the balance between word to word and meaning. He must ensure that he is translating according to the author's meaning and not his own personal bias.

How to Tell a Good Translation from a Bad One

Even though I can read Arabic and Urdu, I still rely heavily on the English translations simply because I am not fluent enough to truly be able to understand the original text. So how do I ensure that I am getting the best possible translation that is as close to the original as possible?

Most importantly is that I do have a level of understanding. If there is anyway possible to do this, then I highly recommend that you do. If the original says "Blue skies are pretty" and the translation says, "apples taste great", then I know this is an extremely bad translation. However, I realize this is not always something the majority can do easily, quickly, or affordable.

The alternative is to use various different translations of the same text. Each translator will have translated it in their own unique way. Then I use their combined translations to figure the truth lies somewhere in between.

Most important you must remember a translation is just that, a translation. Regardless of how good the translation is, it is no substitute for the original. There will always be something lost in the translation even if it's only the author's unique styling of writing.

Other writing tips:
How to Grab Your Audience's Attention


Dafeenah, English, English Terms, Languages, Translations, Writing, Writing Tips

Meet the author

author avatar Dafeenah
Freelance graphic designer specializing in book covers and ebook formatting

Share this page

moderator Mark Gordon Brown moderated this page.
If you have any complaints about this content, please let us know


author avatar Retired
9th Mar 2011 (#)

well done page, and so true.

Reply to this comment

author avatar Songbird B
9th Mar 2011 (#)

Great article! I have found this using an on-line translator from English to Welsh. When you translate it back, it is hysterical as to how it has been butchered! Great share Dafeenah...

Reply to this comment

author avatar mountainside
9th Mar 2011 (#)

...Very informative and well written. Thanks.

Reply to this comment

author avatar Jonathan
16th Mar 2011 (#)

Interesting article. I know what youre talking about. Translating can be frustrating, because its easy to lose certain points, sayings etc. in the translation.
thanks for sharing!

Reply to this comment

author avatar Fatimah As-Salafy
16th Jul 2011 (#)

Very good article. I am an English/Arabic Arabic/English translator. I tell you, it is hard work. You have to find a balance between translating word for word and meaning. You can't leave out either.

Reply to this comment

Add a comment
Can't login?