Translating concepts for what they are and not what you think they ought to be

— By Oliver Simões

Recently, I was contacted by an aspiring interpreter who said she was preparing to become a court interpreter. She had been looking for the correct translation of assault and battery into Portuguese and accidentally came across my website. Despite reading my article on the subject, she seemed determined that the translation of assault was lesão corporal (sic). I clarified, “no, lesão corporal translates as bodily harm or bodily injury“. Even Google Translate knows that, and so does the Collins Dictionary. She ignored the correct translation and insisted that lesão corporal was the right translation of assault. She rebuffed one of the dictionary sources that I had pointed out, then played deaf ears to a second reference. She went on to explain two categories of assault in her home state:

[A]ssault IV, this is only a threat, all it takes is that the victim be afraid or get intimidated that there is a danger of injury — it’s not a misdemeanor — [however] it can result in up to one year in prison if convicted. (…) [whereas in] Assault I — the consequences are much more serious with more years in jail (translated from Portuguese).
Her dilemma was, “How can I tell the lawmakers and judges in Washington that assault in not aggression (sic) when the victim even received stitches on a hole [in their body] as a result of being physically injured?” (translated from Portuguese). My answer to that was, “You simply translate assault for what is is (“ameaça”) and not what you think it should be”. That was the end of the conversation.

Certainly, some translators and interpreters, perhaps without recognizing their own biases (or out of ignorance), tend to indulge in unnecessary creativity in their work, thinking it might enhance the quality of the translation or interpretation. Here is another pedagogical example, taken from a major translation/translators’ platform. The term phrase in question was “Ciências Exatas e da Terra” as the name of an academic course in Brazil. I suggested translating it as “Exact and Earth Sciences”. Three native English speakers objected to my translation on grounds that it “appeared mostly on Brazilian websites” and clearly ignored the English-language sources that I had quoted from. One of them even challenged me to find a course with such name in English-speaking universities, to which I replied: “Has it ever occurred to you that English-speaking schools may not offer such a course?” The same individual suggested natural sciences (“ciências naturais”) as the translation of ciências exatas. 🙈 Another offered a translation no less absurd: pure sciences (“ciências puras”). To the best of my knowledge, there is only one (correct) translation of ciências exatas, and that is exact sciences (also known as quantitative sciences). Not one word less, not one word more.

As I was trying to connect the dots, I realized that translation is not even a science, and even if it were, it would be far from being exact. Translation is what we make it to be: good (read accurate) or bad (read inaccurate). Unfortunately, some folks out there appear to have chosen to trail the path of inaccuracies with their creative nonsense. The process of distortion takes place in at least four ways: (1) by adding elements that are not in the original, (2) subtracting/hiding information that should be translated, (3) changing the author’s intended meaning, and (4) completely ignoring the notion of linguistic register. In conclusion, the maxim traduttore traditore (“the translator is a traitor” in Italian) has never been truer.

Tags: translation errors, mistranslation, translation critique, goofy translations, creative translation, proz, court interpretation