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Textual reliability

A text's reliability consists in the trust a user can place in it, or encourage others to

place in it, as a representation or reproduction of the original. To put that differently,

a text's reliability consists in the user's willingness to base future actions on an

assumed relation between the original and the translation.

For example, if the translation is of a tender, the user is most likely the company

to which the tender has been made. "Reliability" in this case would mean that the

translation accurately represents the exact nature of the tender; what the company

needs from the translation is a reliable basis for action, i.e., a rendition that

meticulously details every aspect of the tender that is relevant to deciding whether

to accept it. If the translation is done in-house, or if the client gives an agency or

freelancer specific instructions, the translator may be in a position to summarize

certain paragraphs of lesser importance, while doing painstakingly close readings

of certain other paragraphs of key importance.

Or again, if the translation is of a literary classic, the user may be a teacher or

student in a class that is reading and discussing the text. If the class is taught in a

mother-tongue or comparative literature department, "reliability" may mean that

the users agree to act as if the translation really were the original text. For this

purpose a translation that reads as if it had originally been written in the target

language will probably suffice. If the class is an upper-division or graduate course

taught in a modern-language or classics department, "reliability" may mean that the

translation follows the exact syntactic contours of the original, and thus helps

students to read a difficult text in a foreign language. For this purpose, various "cribs"

or "interlinears" are best — like those New Testament translations published for the

benefit of seminary students of Greek who want to follow the original Greek text

word for word, with the translation of each word printed directly under the word

it renders.

Or if the translation is of advertising copy, the user may be the marketing

department in the mother company or a local dealer, both of whom will presumably

expect the translation "reliably" to sell products or services without making

impossible or implausible or illegal claims; or it may be prospective customers, who

may expect the translation to represent the product or service advertised reliably,

in the sense that, if they should purchase one, they would not feel that the translation

had misrepresented the actual service or product obtained.

As we saw above, this discussion of a text's reliability is venturing into the

territory traditionally called "accuracy" or "equivalence" or "fidelity." These terms

are in fact shorthand for a wide variety of reliabilities that govern the user's external

perspectives on translation. There are many different types of textual reliability;

there is no single touchstone for a reliable translation, certainly no single simple

formula for abstract semantic (let alone syntactic) "equivalence" that can be applied

easily and unproblematically in every case. All that matters to the non-translating

user is that the translation be reliable in more or less the way s/he expects

(sometimes unconsciously): accurate or effective or some combination of the two;

painfully literal or easily readable in the target language or somewhere in the middle;

reliable for her or his specific purposes.

A text that meets those demands will be called a "good" or "successful"

translation, period, even if another user, with different expectations, might consider

it bad or unsuccessful; a text considered a failure by some users, because it doesn't

meet their reliability needs, might well be hailed as brilliant, innovative, sensitive,

or highly accurate by others.

It is perhaps unfortunate, but probably inevitable, that the norms and standards

appropriate for one group of users or use situations should be generalized to apply

to all. Because some users demand literal translations, for example, the idea spreads

that a translation that is not literal is no translation at all; and because some users

demand semantic (sense-for-sense) equivalence, the idea spreads that a translation

that charts its own semantic path is no translation at all.

Thus a free retelling of a children's classic may be classified as an "adaptation"

rather than a translation; and an advertising translation that deviates strikingly from

the original in order to have the desired impact on target readers or viewers (i.e.,

selling products or services) may be thought of as a "new text" rather than as an

advertising translation.

Each translation user, limited to the perspective of her or his own situational

needs, may quite casually fall into the belief that those needs aren't situational at all,

indeed aren't her or his needs at all, but simply the nature of translation itself. All

translation is thus-and-such — because this translation needs to be, and how different

can different translations be? The fact that they can be very different indeed is often

lost on users who believe their own expectations to be the same as everyone else's.

This mistaken belief is almost certainly the source of the quite widespread notion

that "fidelity," in the sense of an exact one-to-one correspondence between original

and translation, is the only goal of translation. The notion arises when translation

is thought of exclusively as a product or commodity (rather than as an activity or

process), and when the reliability of that product is thought of narrowly in terms

of exact correspondence between texts (rather than as a whole spectrum of possible


Reliably translated texts cover a wide range from the lightly edited to the

substantially rewritten, with the "accurate" or "faithful" translation somewhere in

the middle; there is no room in the world of professional translation for the

theoretical stance that only straight sense-for-sense translation is translation,

therefore as a translator I should never be expected to edit, summarize, annotate,

or re-create a text.

While some effort at user education is probably worthwhile, it is usually easier

for translators simply to shift gears, find out (or figure out) what the user wants or

needs or expects, and provide that — without attempting to enlighten the user about

the variability and volatility of such expectations. Many times clients' demands are

unreasonable, unrealistic, even impossible — as when the marketing manager of a

company going international demands that an advertising campaign in fourteen

different languages be identical to the original, and that the translators in all fourteen

languages show that this demand has been met by providing literal backtranslations

of their work. Then the translators have to decide whether they are willing to

undertake the job at all; and if so, whether they can figure out a way to do it that

satisfies the client without quite meeting her or his unreasonable demands.

For the hard fact is that translators, with all their internal knowledge, can rarely

afford to ignore the external perspectives of non-translators, who are, after all, the

source of our income. As Anthony Pym (1993: 149) notes wryly, in conversation

with a client it makes little sense to stress the element of creative interpretation

present in all translation; this will only create misunderstandings. From the client's

external point of view, "creative interpretation" spells flagrant distortion of the

original, and thus an unreliable text; from the translator's internal point of view,