Grammar Vs. Understandability: Which Is More Important In Terms of Translation Quality?

This article is originally published at translation-blog.multilizer.com.

Translation quality is a hot topic especially when talking about machine translation. It is true that machine translation is not the same as professional human translation, but can we say that the quality of machine translation is worse than the quality of human translation. The common opinion seems to agree with this claim. However I’m not sure if the issue of quality is this simple at all.

While the use of social media and Internet is booming, the criteria of written text is evolving. Anyone of us can write and publish online no matter how bad our language skills are. It was argued already when SMS was the hot new innovation that the languages will suffer when people start to communicate innovatively. Since then the technological development has taken giant leaps and the world has changed.

I believe that there are different criteria for (translation) quality depending on the place or channel. Grammatical mistakes in a novel are probably received differently than in social media. The target of today’s e-communication is to share ideas in a way that people can understand the message. A major reason behind translation projects is also sharing information to a wider audience. This stretches the limits of the concept of quality.

The quality of translated information is hard to define. Let’s take a real life example:

A person from our development team was the other day involved in translating a manual in PDF format. The manual was related to building an electronic gadget, and the translation was made with Multilizer PDF Translator.

Multilizer PDF Translator automatically translates PDF documents using machine-translation, so the translation quality is not perfect.  Unlike other solutions for PDF translation, however, Multilizer PDF Translator preserves the layout. During the translation project it became clear that the layout of the translated document was more important than perfect grammatical quality.

As a proof for our claim, see the Spanish translation for “Important! Before turning on power, ensure that capacitors C7, C9, and C15 are connected as shown in the diagram.”

Without Image With Image
¡Importante! Antes de encender la unidad, asegúrese de que los condensadores C7, C9, y C15 se conectan como se muestra en el diagrama. Circuit diagram with Capacitors

Importante! Antes de encender la impresora, compruebe que los condensadores C7, C9, C15 y estén conectados como se muestra en el diagrama.

The left text without image has a better translation from grammatical point of view as the right one which is far from perfect. I bet many of us would however choose the incorrect translation if it shares the information in an understandable way.

Have you ever read a grammatically correct text without understanding what it is really trying to say? At least I have.

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3 thoughts on “Grammar Vs. Understandability: Which Is More Important In Terms of Translation Quality?”

  1. En español:
    Por lo general, la comprensión del idioma de destino (la lengua a la que se está traduciendo) es considerado como el más importante. Habilidades perfecto en el idioma de origen no son necesarios.

    Cuando se traduce el texto de un campo especial (por ejemplo, texto jurídico o médico) que el traductor debe tener al menos algún conocimiento especial sobre el campo.

    In English:
    Usually understanding the target language (the language to which one is translating) is regarded as most important. Perfect skills in the source language are not required.

    When translating text about a special field (e.g. medical or legal text) the translator should have at least some special understanding about the field.

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