Volume 4, No. 4 
October 2000

  Serghei Nikolayev





The World Is Our Oyster
by Gabe Bokor
Index 1997-2000
  Translator Profiles
Experience Counts!
by Eva Eie
  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
  Translation Theory
Equivalence in Translation: Between Myth and Reality
by Vanessa Leonardi
The Sociosemiotic Approach and Translation of Fiction
by Yongfang Hu
Translation and Meaning
by Magdy M. Zaky
Into English—Seven survival tools for translating Brazilian Portuguese into English
by Danilo Nogueira
  Translator Education
Poor Results in Foreign>Native Translation: Reasons and Ways of Avoidance
by Serghei Nikolayev
  Science & Technology
A Translator’s Guide to Organic Chemical Nomenclature XXI
by Chester E. Claff, Jr., Ph.D.
  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Search Engines Revisited
by Gabe Bokor
  Translators’ Tools
Translators’ Emporium
Translators’ Events
Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
Translation Journal
Translator Education

Poor Results in Foreign>Native Translation: Reasons and Ways of Avoidance

by Serghei G. Nikolayev
ranslation is traditionally considered to be one of the most important and linguistically relevant components within the general course of learning the peculiarities of a studied (foreign) language. Its value is seen, in particular, in helping the student acquire or improve practical language skills. The uniqueness of translation, compared to other kinds of language practices, lies in the fact that this is a receptive and, simultaneously, reproductive linguistic activity. Being thus syncretic in its essence, translation, apart from fulfilling a number of "applied" didactic functions, is also valuable and all-sufficient by itself, since it is one of the final objectives of teaching a foreign language at a university level.

As the student and some teachers view the problem, the most significant and complicated steps in the [translation process] are the stages of “superficial awareness” and “deep awareness of the original.”
The mechanism of training foreign>native translation skills may be schematically shown as a number of sequential stages: 1. Perception of the utterance in a foreign language ("superficial awareness of the original"); 2. Processing of the result ("deep awareness of the original"—e.g., identification of unfamiliar words, work with bilingual and monolingual explanatory dictionaries, etc.); 3. The result itself ("creation of the new utterance," or construction of the semantic and connotative analog in the native language).

As the student and some teachers view the problem, the most significant and complicated steps in the above-shown scheme are the stages of "superficial awareness" and "deep awareness of the original." Failure to clear these stages successfully may be due to the students' poor or insufficient knowledge of the foreign vocabulary; possible lack of information on rare words and/or stylistic labels in the dictionaries consulted (the latter circumstance generally leading to the translator's inability to distinguish the stylistic specificity of the original); the presence, in the foreign text, of complicated, non-standard syntactical constructions ignored or poorly reported by grammar textbooks. All these create the general mood of "fear" of the source text on the part of the poor translator. Accordingly, little emphasis is placed upon the final stage of the translation, that is the utterance in the language that is well known to the students (the "result" of the translation process).

Another reason for neglect of the "result" is the translator's a priori persuasion that every utterance he/she makes in the native language is always grammatically (and/or stylistically) correct.

It should also be noted that the above "result" is obviously conditioned by the original text in its content, but actually does not exhibit any formal linguistic ties with the latter thus being absolutely independent. Hence it is assessed, among other important criteria, from the standpoint of its conformity to the accepted standards of the native language. The typical characteristics of such a "result" might be as follows:
  1. Undesirable imitation of the foreign word organization (word order);
  2. Rendering of certain foreign grammar forms by the seemingly analogous structures of the mother tongue;
  3. Excessive and/or unjustified use of international language forms (like, say, words or inflections of Latin origin);
  4. Non-observance of the general principle of compression/decompression.
The above-said drawbacks originating from the "translator's dependence" on the linguistic peculiarities of the original text, can seldom be qualified as "discrepancy of senses," but should rather be attributed to the violation of formal standards of the native language which hampers the perception of the translation result as a text showing ultimate agreement with the original utterance. This violation thus cannot but notably lower the quality of the result.

As an immediate example, I'll take one English sentence found almost at random in a text dedicated to the system of education in modern Britain. This sentence, which has every chance of being offered for translation by Russian-language students of various knowledge levels, runs as follows:

To become a teacher you have to pass an examination at about 18.

The possible variants of translation into Russian here are:

A. Став учителем, у вас есть 18 экзаменов.

B. Чтобы стать учителем, вы должны сдать экзамен около 18 лет.

C. Любой желающий приобрести квалификацию учителя должен сдать экзамен, когда ему исполнится 18 лет или около того.

Obviously enough, variant A reveals the poorest knowledge of the grammatical specificity of the foreign language. The difficulties of the original which remained unmastered during the first studying stage (the infinitive as the adverbial modifier of purpose; the verb to have in the function of a modal verb; numerative meaning of the indefinite article; isolated, or elliptical use of the numeral denoting age) have resulted in misunderstanding the meaning of the source utterance and, consequently, in the semantic distortion of the result. This distortion is itself so bad that it even overshadows the wrong syntax of the Russian translation.

Generally speaking, variant B may be recognized as semantically equal to the original. However it contains an evident violation of the Russian language standards (the adverbial indicator of time is perceived in it as a denotation of a time span rather than somebody's age, leading to an ambiguity which is absolutely absent in the original).

In spite of its semantic correctness, neither can variant C be called perfect, this time due to its lexical redundancy in comparison with the original.

The two last translation variants may serve as typical examples of the translator's underestimation of the final stage of the translating activity, i.e. the stage named in this article as "creation of the new utterance." The only correct translation would be the Russian sentence Чтобы стать учителем, примерно в 18 лет нужно сдать экзамен.

Apart from the fact that the above faulty translations exhibit errors pertaining to different linguistic domains, they also indicate different levels of practical knowledge of the foreign language and acquaintance with its lexical and grammatical specificity. Therefore variant A is characteristic of the initial stage of studies, variant B of the advanced stage and variant C of the final one.

In accordance with our observations, the following measures could be recommended to teachers and curricula compilers as an attempt to avoid potential mistakes in translation:

  1. As the students make step-by-step advance in mastering the linguistic specificity of the target language and move slowly from the initial to the final stage of the studying process, the focus should be gradually shifted from the first translation stage to the last one, i.e. to the translation result. This should of course be done primarily in class, to form a habit of viewing the result as a self-sufficient and self-valuable utterance in the native language whose linguistic specificity should not copy the original. A fine support here is perhaps an increase (or at least a "non-decrease") of the time devoted to the practical written translation from the foreign language into the native one, as compared to oral translation. This is due to the fact that it is a written translation technique that requires maximum responsibility from the translator for the final result which is fixed on paper only once as a "fair-copy."

  2. Adding, within the curriculum of the undergraduate students, one more, final, phase to the above-shown three-stage translation scheme, which may be named "result editing," i.e. bringing the native-language utterance into complete accord with the standards of the vernacular.

  3. As an essential basis of what was said in the previous item—greater attention to and focus on the professional study of the native language within the general curriculum of those students who study foreign languages. This emphasis may be particularly manifested in an intensive study of the stylistic standards of the mother tongue.