Translation is to create an equivalent!

How to translate without “falling short” of the meaning of a term or formulation? This article provides the answers! The art of translation!

The art of translation…

I see that you are alarmed… Don’t worry, I am not going to explain the various translation theories that have been developed by prominent linguists and other translation experts. However, I realize that with practice, I have become a fervent and even fierce follower of the Theory of meaning.

You could blame me for defending my own interests: I studied translation at ESIT, the school that gave birth to this theory according to which, I quote one of my professors: “Translation is not working on a language, on words, it is working on the message, on the meaning. […] It is to UNVERBALIZE, after having understood it in order to reformulate or re-articulate it”¹. To translate well, the prerequisites are obviously fluency in your native language and the ability to speak well and know the source language and culture, without necessarily being bilingual (something clients don’t always understand the difference, but that’s a discussion for another time…).

So I accept that I uphold my own interests, but it is simply because this idea conveys a message, a meaning, more than just words. This has always seemed obvious to me –common sense–, but also because in my daily translation practice, it avoids errors and approximations in a field where precision is required: technical translation.
I found myself wondering about the methods used by some colleagues to discover the meaning of a term or wording, and then to translate it without “falling over the edge”. This question comes from the experience I have in terms of revision of legal and financial translations, it is purely practical. When it comes to these revisions, I notice that some translators have a reflex which consists of finding the translation of a term using tools, such as lexicons or specialized dictionaries. This can give good results when there is a coincidence between a correspondence (word for word translation, formal translation) and an equivalent (a term which communicates an equivalent meaning, but whose shape and structure may differ); but this can prove catastrophic in certain technical fields where terms can lead to confusion, because they seem transparent (for example, privilege which cannot always be translated as “privilège”), either because they have multiple meanings (in the source language, in the target language or in both languages): warrant for example has different meanings, such as “guarantee”, “warrant to bring “,” warrant of seizure” or even “warrant of purchase”.

Not to mention terminology, take for example the difficulty of translating an everyday expression: how do you translate “from time to time”, a horrible expression, but appreciated by those writing English contracts? If we stick to strict lexical correspondence, it should be translated by “de temps en temps”, “de temps à autre”, “quelquefois”. However, here are a few examples taken from a single document:

  • The rank of each Party will be automatically adjusted from time to time = Le rang de chaque Partie sera ajusté automatiquement chaque fois que nécessaire ;
  • Each Director shall be entitled to appoint from time to time any person to act as his alternate = Chaque gérant est habilité à nommer toute personne pour agir en qualité de suppléant (il est implicite que cette compétence peut s’exercer si nécessaire) ;
  • as may be from time to time determined by the Board = désignée, à sa discrétion, par le Conseil ;
  • it shall only be repayable at such time as the Board may resolve from time to time = le principal ou les intérêts ne sont remboursables que sur décision opportune du Conseil ;
  • Director” means any director of the Company appointed from time to time = Le terme Gérant désigne tout gérant de la Société désigné périodiquement ;
  • “Articles” means the Articles of Association of the Company as the same may be amended from time to time = Le terme Statuts renvoie aux statuts de la Société, quelles que soient les modifications qui pourraient y être apportées ultérieurement.

Now take an economic term: how to translate revenue? Is it “revenu”, “bénéfice”, “chiffre d’affaires”, “profit”, “produit”? And what about the word share in a partnership agreement since English law does not distinguish between stock and shares? And why is the term committee (in the sense of a parliamentary task force) almost always translated to “comité”, while in French legislative law we always talk about a “commission”?

So, how can we avoid being wrong? What is the wrong way to translate “beside”? By systematically considering the field and the technical subdomain in which we work, there is text (i.e. What is said) of course, but also the context (i.e. What is implied, what is culturally specific), editorial and stylistic habits and, obviously, the reader to whom the target translation is addressed. Facing a term of purely technical jargon is, in my opinion, an unstoppable reflex. It consists not of finding a lexical correspondence in a dictionary or a lexicon, but of looking for a definition of the term in the source language and its use in the precise field, then comparing this definition to the term’s definition chosen for the translation. If the definitions are not identical, the chosen term for the target language is simply wrong. Finding an equivalent is not lexical and not semantic.

Well I can hear you already: “Oh, what a know-it-all!” No, I am simply trying, in my humble position, to show that translation is a job that must be exercised by people having received a minimum amount of theoretical and methodological training. This cannot be improvised and knowledge of languages is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

¹ “The interpretative theory or the theory of meaning: the perspective of a practitioner,” Florence Herbulot, http://www.erudit.org/revue/meta/2004/v/n2/009353ar.html#no1

Translation into English: Chloe Findlay

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