Upon seeing the call for an article on naturalness in translation here at ProZ, I decided to try my hand at this.
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Since I’m a Brazilian translator, it is convenient to restrict my examples to the pair English-Portuguese, in either way.
Unnaturalness in translation can be lavishly exemplified, by resorting to anything translated automatically by any of the tools now available therefor. Bad human translators will also contribute a lot of these unhappy examples.
I know a blogger whose stuff is read by too many people from too many places. He has his posts translated automatically. Anyone can see the texts so translated are invariably clumsy, hard to understand, full of absurdities, incoherent, in short, they simply never sound natural. No wonder. Anyone but those who believe something automatically translated is adequate to be ‘served’ to a multilingual readership can see how texts are impoverished by direct machine translation, without at least a competent review.
Delivering the raw translation made by Google Translator, for instance, to readers of another language may seem almost unthinkable to anyone who has an idea of what a well written text is. However, that’s just what some people out there are doing. No kidding. You’ll certainly get plenty of sentences which sound now stilted, now unintelligible, nonsensical and utterly ridiculous. These automatic translating resources do not work in the same way as we humans (the ‘natural’ translators) use to. For one, many of them, as far as I know, work for free. We humans also make mistakes, of course. The great difference I see lies in the fact that we, at least, stand a chance of ever feeling ashamed for such mistakes. There is no point in praising a machine translator for an outstanding performance, or telling it off on account of a shabby, unspeakably ridiculous rendering. It is supposed to react with exactly the same indifference to either the highest praise or the harsher scolding, aren’t I right?
So it is not reasonable to expect naturalness from a translator who can’t react to any opinion, can’t understand anything at all, can’t make any sensible choice to fit situations or circumstances, can’t have the slightest idea of how to say what to whom, can’t translate with minimum taste or expertise. Only we humans, who have the experience of using a language as a tool for real communication, can supply any degree of naturalness in translation.
There is much to be considered when you translate, if you want to sound natural. First of all, you have to understand very well what is being conveyed in the original text, and you should also be able to guess certain intentions on the part of the author. For instance, when an author says something only to be funny - no matter how successfully - if his translator just can’t guess this, and worse still, treats the would-be joke as something serious, something important will be naturally lost in translation. No naturalness will be attained. The language used in a given situation may be full of metaphors that give color to the original, but hell to the translator, unless if it is a machine, who isn’t anyway supposed to care for naturalness, adequateness, taste, etc...
Many a time I saw expressions like ‘How far is far?” translated into Portuguese as “Quão longe é longe?” True, it is a literal, word-for-word translation. The problem is that no Portuguese speaker would ever think of asking such a question this way. It is on the whole unnatural. There are human translators who don’t seem even to suspect how unnatural “quão longe é longe” sounds. These will never be good translators before they manage to make such an obvious realization. Machines will never be good translators at all, in this sense, before they can understand what is being said and react accordingly.
I don’t think a cold machine is likely to make the right decision when ‘good morning’ can be translated literally as ‘boa manhã’ (if that’s what these words really mean, for example, in “I spent a very good morning with them”), or when to translate it as “bom dia”, a usual greeting. As a rule, most of we human translators are.
Expressions like “both A and B are …”, according to my experience, are too often translated as “ambos A e B são …”. Laughable, to say the least.
In order to translate even objective, predominantly referential texts with naturalness, the person (or machine, if it were possible) should possess both a lot of experience with the target language and a sound knowledge of the source language. In the absence of these, I believe it’s simply not possible, for either man or machine.