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A-Z of Translation – the letter F:

We are breaking new linguistic ground with the letter F and trademarking the result:

Fixed-outcome fallacy™ – There is a persistent belief among buyers of translation services that whoever does the work, the result will be roughly the same. What always strikes us when producing a translation is the number of individual choices and decisions involved, making it near impossible that any two translators or translation providers would ever come up with the same result.

At a simple level, there is clearly less scope for variation. If you want a translation of the French word “chien”, everyone is going to give you “dog” –although who knows, a fox-hunting aficionado may be unable to resist “hound”. So actually, we are already seeing what a database expert would call a one-to-many relationship. Now consider an entire sentence, containing maybe five words with one-to-many relationships to words in the target language (i.e. the language into which the sentence is being translated). The likelihood of any two translators making exactly the same choice in each of those five cases is quite small. And when you get to a multi-page document, the chances become vanishingly tiny. The nature of language makes a fixed outcome the exception, not the rule, in most cases.

Language conventions and rules also play a role – there may be different, but equally valid, ways of writing a word (e.g. “life cycle” / “lifecycle”), for example. In languages like English, choosing when to use capitals is also a source of variation; similar issues exist in many other languages.

There are other factors, too, of course. Knowledge of the subject matter, or just sheer dedication, will always heavily influence the outcome of the translation process. In the Internet age, the willingness to read around the subject and follow up references to people, events, companies, transactions, research findings or whatever also has a major impact on the quality and fitness for purpose of a translation.

Given the above, any organisation that commissions translations in an “unstructured” and random manner will end up with a level of variation in the translated material that they would never tolerate in their own language.

The good news is that a translation provider with a rigorous process, smart tools and a strong team ethos can eliminate undesirable variation without hurting creativity.

Key takeway: Far from being a “commodity”, translation is a highly variable, handcrafted product.

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