Translation quality is complex concept. Translation quality doesn’t work like an on-off switch. The complexity comes with the fact that translation quality is a continuum with rare extreme values and many causes. Here we list four of the reasons why a translation may have low quality.
The most important reason for translating any material is to share knowledge. Content is the king, and the king should be present also in the translation. In most translation cases it isn’t crucial to translate word by word as long as the actual message is being delivered correctly.
The translation quality is extremely low if the message has been changed during the translation process. However, one would have to compare the original and translated text to be able to see this type of error, and it really doesn’t require more than just a wrong word choice to distort the message.
The tone has a big impact on the translation quality. Depending on the type of the original text, the tone can be official, professional, humorous, easy-going, polite, informal etc. The writer of the original document has chosen certain tone for a reason and translators should respect this choice as much as possible.
Tone issues arise when the source and target languages have very different tone standards. For example the chosen pronouns can change the tone remarkably. It is not insignificant whether to use “you” or “You”, “tu” or “Lei”, “sinä” or “te”, “du” or “Sie” and so on. There are languages (and cultures) which have less strict rules on how to talk to other people. When the translation is made from this kind of “informal” language to more “formal” language there is a great risk of having a too impolite tone.
When a translation is made between two languages in most cases it is also made between two cultures and countries. Cultures include spoken and unspoken customs, like the use of colours, hand gestures and social norms, which need translators’ attention. Similarly different countries have different laws, regulations and other rules to follow.
For example if a product manual has instructions in case of an emergency, in order to localize the emergency number the translator should consider whether the reader is in Finland (112) or in USA (911) or in some other country. Likewise the translation should not courage people to break the law. Any translation which is not placed in the right context will be in low quality.
There is a reason why I put grammar to the last place on this list. To a certain level, grammar is not as important as it may seem. The thing is that grammar is usually the easiest thing to observe because it can be evaluated also when the original document is not available. This has lead to a custom of people focusing too much on small and marginal errors.
Grammar is a strong quality indicator to any native speakers, and any text with plenty of grammatical errors is relatively easy to label as low quality. On the other hand minor grammatical mistakes don’t matter when the goal is to deliver a message. Of course there are situations when misspellings and grammatical errors change the tone of the text and thus results low in the quality scale. But there are also places where the message is more important than the messenger.
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