Does the perfect translation exist?

Yes. And no.

Well, that was easy. 

Just kidding! I’ll explain. I’ve been talking about “the perfect translation” with some translator colleagues and we’ve reached the verdict that….the jury is most definitely out on the question of perfection.  I set about writing this post for translators, but in the end I thought it would be a great idea to write it for the Real World (I’m just kidding, translator buddies, I know you live in the real world too. Wink.) Giving non-translators an insight into what makes a perfect translation was as much about client expectation and perception as it was about language, and although there are many language references within this post, it has merged into an almost philosophical musing on what can and Kant (see what I did there?) be considered perfect.

If we’re going to discuss it, I think it’s first of all useful to figure out what “perfect” means. Here’s a definition from the Oxford English dictionary: “In a state of complete excellence; free from any imperfection or defect of quality; that cannot be improved upon; flawless, faultless. Also occas.: nearly approaching such a state.”  Likewise, in the Cambridge Dictionary, there are a few definitions: “Complete and correct in every way, of the best possible type or without fault” and “Exactly right for someone or something”.  

And it’s right there, somewhere between those definitions, where I think the truth may lie.

Call me pedantic, but “free from any imperfection or defect of quality” andwithout fault” do not mean the same asExactly right for someone or something”. Clearly, it depends what we’re talking about; a size 5 pair of Christian Louboutin heels may be perfect for me but certainly wouldn’t be perfect for my Mum  and her tiny size 3 feet. So, we’ve established when it’s a tangible, concrete object, “perfect” is quite precise, for example, it fits or it doesn’t. But if those beautiful, expensive Christian Louboutin shoes were a shocking, shouting cerise pink court shoe, they wouldn’t be perfect for either me or my Mum, conservative (who said boring?) as we are in our shoe choices. But that’s a matter of taste, I hear you cry! What if I want a shocking, shouting cerise pink translation? Which begs another question, are translations a matter of taste? Surely there are some absolutes? The title of “perfect” cannot simply be bequeathed willy nilly on any old translation. Or should all translations be assessed subjectively?

For me, it’s a very difficult question to answer. In each language, the sliding scale from subjective to objective evaluation starts and ends on different notes. Something as seemingly simple as colour can be a minefield in any translation, never more so than for a piece in which colour is a key theme (I’m thinking of a recent translation I completed for a fashion house). In Spanish, for example, there exists the wonderfully evasive “pardo“. In my beloved María Moliner dictionary, this delightful shade is described as applying to the neutral colour that results from mixing black, red and some yellow or orange. Which people clearly do, all the time. (Well, my toddler does). In the rarely wrong Real Academia dictionary, it’s listed as “Del color de la tierra, o de la piel del oso común, intermedio entre blanco y negro, con tinte rojo amarillento, y más oscuro que el gris”, which, in teen speak, might be rendered as “kinda earthy coloured, sorta like a bear, not black but not white, a bit reddy-yellowy but definitely darker than grey.”

Glad we’ve got that cleared up.

But where does this leave you…as the client? Rather than grabbing some paint pots and slinging it out over a colour chart, it’s obviously better to discuss ambiguous terms – whether they’re words that have no obvious equivalent in the target language, or whether, regardless of the “dictionary meaning”, your company uses the term in a different way. There are also cases when the word may have several meanings – as a translator and an expert in the culture and appropriate language use you need to know what word fits when. A classic example for German to English translators is the infamous “Impressum” – yes, it does have the meaning of imprint or masthead in publishing terms, but if you translate that as a menu heading for a company’s website a translator would (and should) get laughed out of business. This topic has been discussed numerous times – here and here are a few examples.

So do I think there’s such a thing as a “perfect translation”? I’m still thinking it over, for me it’s definitely, totally, a sort of (brownish) grey area.

What do you think? As ever, I appreciate all of your comments!

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  • […] Does the perfect translation exist? This post examines all those tricky grey areas.  […]

  • James says:

    Jo, great article, thanks for sharing your opinion. From my point of view, I don’t think there’s such a thing like a “perfect” translation, maybe just one that gives an understandable meaning of one word or phrase. .It can involve multiple definitions or meanings and it also depends on the person translating a document..Anyway, I incline to say more like a no :). As regards to this topic, here’s a good source of news about translation and localization; maybe it’s useful.

  • Rachael says:

    Yes! The perfect translation is that which is perfect for the client who requested it. Just like the perfect shoes! But there’s no such thing as just one perfect pair of shoes (in a girl’s wardrobe), is there?!

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