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Translators - Do we edit as we translate?

I am a translator out of the United States. I have been trying to translate various journals from the women in the Democratic Republic of Congo and have run into difficulty.

I realize that the women writing these journals are writing in their third language of French. So it's not perfect and there are plenty of spelling and grammar mistakes. But sometimes the French is so poor, or the spelling is so off, that it is impossible to comprehend what the author is trying to communicate. When this happens I feel I have three options:

1) I could literally translate the phrase word by word, which could be incomprehensible in English
2) I could try to make sense of the phrase, which runs the risk of over interpreting or changing the original meaning intended by the author
3) I could leave the entire phrase out and insert a small asterisk leading to a note at the bottom explaining that there were incomprehensible errors in the original text that led me to omit the phrase.

Have any of you run into this problem? What was your solution?
Thank you for taking the time to reply!


Aurore's picture

THE dilemma.....

Hi Evjoy!

Indeed sometimes it gets difficult and I'm also faced with the dilemma of translating word by word (confusion and misunderstandings included) or translating in a "better" language.

However, usually I go to the second option. I have the feeling that if I translate into bad English I'm not faithful to these women. What they want is to get a message through and the first option would lessen the chances of them getting heard. So yes, I'm arranging the language sometimes. But I have the feeling this is what matters here. We are no professional translators and this is not an academic exercise, after all.

Finally, sometimes I think the language they use is not the French I'm speaking. It's a French-Speaking Africa French and there are different dialects/idioms that I'm not that familiar with. So my fear is that, by translating word to word in English, I make somethig that made sense to them totally unreadable and it might give readers the impression those women are confused and have no idea.

So that's how I usually solve the dilemma: I ask myself if I get the idea enough to SHARE it. If yes, then I make the idea as clear as possible based on the text.

Hope that helped a bit :)

Evjoy's picture

Thank you!

Thank you Aurore, that is really helpful.

Yes, I believe you are right. The main goal should be to be as faithful to the words of the author as possible while making their thoughts as clear as possible in English. It's not very helpful to the reader if the English translation is choppy or doesn't clearly convey the picture the author was trying to paint.

On that note, how faithful are you when you are translating their voice? I mean, these women are choosing specific words to tell their stories. With these sentences that are perfectly clear and grammatically correct, I sometimes find better words or more concise ways in English to convey the same thing. In this case, should I stay faithful to their vernacular or should I use language that is more 'soutenu'?

Thank you for helping me find the balance!

amys's picture

I think the most important

I think the most important thing is to get their message across in a way that English speakers can understand. In this context the reader doesn't care if the original is not grammatically correct, or if there may possibly be a minor inaccuracy, they just want to hear what the writer has to say. Sometimes that's easier said than done, obviously... I find that sometimes, if a sentence makes no sense whatsoever, reading it aloud suddenly makes the meaning jump out at you. I had a sentence once (can't remember the specifics) where it was impossible to tell whether the writer meant one thing or the complete opposite - although the context from the rest of the article helped me work it out.

As for sticking to the writer's tone and vernacular, I think that it's generally a good idea to try and stay true to the original writer where possible - if you give her a higher register than the one she used then you're changing her voice. Then again, you're not obliged to stick to the French word-for-word either, and if you think certain words sound nicer in English then often that's the best option. I often find myself making sentences more concise, if, say, the same phrase is repeated and is redundant, to make it sound nicer and more readable in English, without changing the tone or the meaning.

Aurore's picture

I agree 100% with Amys. The

I agree 100% with Amys. The only thing I would add is that I give my preference to the word-to-word or at least to 'idioms' when it's about humour. Cause I think that adds something to the final translation and helps perpetuate our cultural diversity around here :)
But otherwise, indeed: understanding first and foremost!

Mauwa Brigitte's picture


C'est vraiement encourangeant, pour une fois encourage pour nous aider à faire la traduction, la langue Anglaise n'est pas la notre. Ensemble nous vaincrons.


Therese kasindi's picture


It's would be a serious problem for a person who don't know french language perfectly.
But as i am a Congolese woman, i can advise you to read all the post and translate only the global message, in resume.
I think my idea will help you!

THERESE( Maman Shujaa, Drc)

Evjoy's picture

Thank you all!

Thank you all for your ideas and helpful thoughts. I'll take them into consideration as I prepare my next translation. Thanks again for taking the time to respond!

delphine criscenzo's picture

Another idea!

Hi Evjoy and all,

Merci pour cette question, et vous tous pour vos responses!
Cette conversation est tres important d'un point de vue de l'etique!
Je suis d'accord qu'une traduction qui a du sense est notre but ultime!
Mais bien sur nous ne voulons pas ajouter du sense, donc j'aimerai suggerer que quand le text originel en Francais est difficile a comprendre, nous contactions l'auteur pour clarifier le contenu.
Je susi consciente que c'est du travail en plus, et peut etre ceci n'arrive que dans des cas extremes!
J'apprecie ennormement les efforts de vous tous et votre integrite, surtout en ce qui concerne votre travail au pres de nos membres de la RDC.
Bien a vous,

Delphine Criscenzo


bien à vous

c'est juste vous fellicité de ce travail que vous venez de nous offrir,car la traduction d'une langue à une autre et à encourager sur tout nous qui sommes de la RD CONGO;nous ne sommes paq habitués à l'anglais,
vraiment grand merci et courage dans cette traductions.

neema weza

LightMyWay's picture

The task at hand!

Hello Evjoy!

I too have been wrestling with this exact same problem for the past year as I've worked on translations. There have been instances where I have done all three of the things you proposed, but I never really felt comfortable about doing any of them. I truly appreciate the suggestions so many translators have offered on this conundrum.

But it was perhaps Delphine's suggestion--that we reach out to the original author for clarification--that resonated most with me. Astonishingly, this is something I never even considered--but it's so clear now!! That small action in and of itself will stimulate the intercultural dialogue we try to create every time we complete a translation, and it will clarify the actual words we are trying to translate at the same time. It might be a little more work, as she said, but we owe it to ourselves, our readers, and most of all the original authors to stay true to their meaning, their tone, and their message.

I'm thrilled to be a part of this community and to know that we are ALL sharing the same trials and the same triumphs. I look forward to getting to know everyone on World Pulse as we continue our journey!


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