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The secret of a good translation

Alain Bernier, B.A., M.Sc. COMM., FLMI, C. Tran.
Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council


I once asked a high‑ranking executive what the secret of her success was. She told me that it was her keen interest in her clients and the dedication she put into serving them. I believe that this piece of advice could also apply to translation. For a successful translation, we need to give close consideration not only to the writer's thoughts, but also to the reader's, who is after all the ultimate client.

There are two ways of translating, just as there are two ways of living. We can go through life taking the path of least resistance, or dare to go off the beaten track and overcome any barriers that might arise, always willing to aim higher. It is a personal choice. But at the end of the line, choosing the latter option will broaden our outlook, and give us the joy of discovery and pride in our work.

The first thing we need to learn is how to listen, to properly understand the full scope and depth of the message. We must also be familiar with the subject matter, which requires in‑depth research. In short, we ought not to translate like machines, but like professionals who have not only a mastery of the source and target languages, but also detailed knowledge of the subject area. This is what the best translators do—those who frequently add a preface, introduction or explanatory notes to their translations.

Once we have chosen this difficult path, the advice that Irène de Buisseret used to give her students and readers is still applicable today. She would tell us to question even those things we think we know already. If the answers are not at hand following our research, then we must not be afraid to consult our colleagues or, if necessary, the author. It might even sometimes be necessary to be humble enough to admit that this is not our field, or that we simply do not know enough about it.

It is a matter of intellectual integrity—making every effort to get the full sense of the message across from one culture to another, down to the last detail, and with every shade of meaning.

I find the act of translation to be basically ethical in nature. To translate properly, we need unfailing intellectual integrity, the kind of integrity that would lead us to move heaven and earth to get across the full message, rather like the messenger from Marathon who, at the end of his run, died after delivering his message.

Meeting high ethical standards is the cornerstone of translation. The future of our profession depends upon it, because when all is said and done, high standards are what distinguish professional translators from amateurs. Meeting such standards becomes particularly important if we want to have a professional credential that really matters.

As with any other profession, ours is based on absolute trust. When we consult a doctor, we put our life in the doctor's hands. Similarly, when we consult a lawyer, we place our reputation in the lawyer's hands. When we consult an accountant, our assets are at stake. The same professional requirements apply to translation.

If we translate in the financial field and make a mistake, whether by inattention or negligence, shareholders or the general public may lose a great deal of money. Likewise, if we translate in the medical field and, through inattention or negligence, we make a mistake, it can have harmful repercussions on people's health or even their lives. If we translate in the field of communications and make a mistake through inattention or negligence, this mistake could cause significant social or political dissent. Mistakes like these over the longer term can also have a negative impact on the target culture.

As professionals, we shoulder a heavy burden. It is therefore vitally important to exercise our profession with the greatest possible attention and care, in order to transmit the full message accurately, with every shade of meaning, and with due regard to all of the cultural and social realities of the parties in question.

Nor should we forget to use simple, clear language to ensure that everyone can understand what we write. We need a good grasp of the source and target languages in order to write straightforwardly, clearly and with intellectual rigour. It is also important to express ourselves with conviction and passion. This means putting everything we can into the translation. If we use any form of translation software, then it is important to avoid taking the easy route.

We should always aim higher. Our profession continually demands personal growth and an effort to excel, a challenge that we need to face with courage. Once again, Irène de Buisseret's advice—to read until our eyes are popping out of our head—is still relevant.

The other option, the path of least resistance or maximum profit, would make us all spineless hacks, with little social impact, riding on the coattails of our fellow citizens.

In the current climate of economic uncertainty, this issue becomes extremely important. If we are to protect ourselves from the ups and downs of the economy, then it takes more than learning how to use translation software. Above all, it requires that we set ourselves apart from others as true professionals in every respect, because there is always a market for excellence.