Language professionals and clients must understand the basics of translation theory. This will create better translations and, ultimately, help craft extraordinary content.

The greatest topic in translation theory is that of precision and naturalness (also named ‘aesthetics’). We will look at what this means, and how it impacts translations and copywriting.

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This post has been updated in August 2021.

Precision or Aesthetics in Translation Theory

Precision means replicating the original text in the greatest degree possible. Aesthetics or naturalness is about making a text beautiful, sometimes to the expense of precision.

Certification and Precision vs. Aesthetics

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Colombia holds an exam (via two flagship public universities), renowned in Latin America. It illustrates the issue of precision vs. aesthetics and explains the standard used worldwide.

Written Section

The written section of the test consists of two texts. The texts are of a legal, political, diplomatic or commercial nature, selected randomly by the examination authorities.

The first text is in Spanish and must be translated into the one language that is being tested (ie: English). The second text is in the language being tested and must be transformed into the Spanish language.

Oral Section

The oral section of the test is also divided into two. The texts used are dialogues, interviews, legal interrogations or speeches.

In the first part, an exam official reads out a text in Spanish and the candidate must provide a consecutive interpretation of it (the official pauses in some portions and the candidates delivers the interpretation immediately).

In the second part, the official reads out a text in the language being tested and the candidate, again, provides a consecutive interpretation.

Principles and Definitions

The grading matrix is where translation theory issues are reflected. One’s first instinct, when confronted with an examination of this type, is to provide beautiful written translations and pleasant spoken interpretations. This, however, is not quite what the exam looks for. Many competent users of a language fail because what the exam wants is precision over aesthetics.

Precision is defined by the examiners as the “equivalence of meaning with the original text. Meaning is the system of coherent concepts with a communicative purpose at the level of words, phrases, text or discourse.”

Aesthetics or naturalness, on the other hand, is defined as:

“the use of grammatical structures and linguistic variables which are considered a correct usage by speakers and writers in that language. A written text or oral discourse is considered to have a high level of naturalness, if:

    • Idiomatic grammatical structures that native speakers employ are used.
    • When translating the non-specialized terms a standard variety vocabulary is used.
    • When translating the specialized terms the equivalent terms of the specific field of action are used.

The errors of naturalness are the use of national, regional, social, chronological or cultural variations different to the standard.”

The Nitty-Gritty of Grading

Here is where things get complicated and a correct grasp of translation theory is put to the test. Precision accounts for 80% of the grade and naturalness only accounts for 20% of the grade.

If we look closely at the grading we find several interesting things, amongst them:

  • Each precision error deducts 0.4 points, but each naturalness error only deducts 0.1 points.
  • The minimum score to pass is forty-five points over fifty.

As can be gleaned from this, precision is more highly valued than naturalness. A candidate would do well to concentrate on precision than on aesthetics. This focus is not exclusive to this exam. It is safe to say that it is a tendency in translation theory and in many translation certifications worldwide.

translation theory for translators

Examples of this Translation Theory Problem

Harry Potter

We will translate the opening paragraph of Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone into Spanish and examine this translation theory dualism. (NB: No need to worry about understanding Spanish; we will concern ourselves only with examining translation theory in general):

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”

A very precise translation into Spanish, leaving naturalness in second place, would read like (although, granted, the last phrase: “just didn’t hold with such nonsense” is an idiom that is quite tough to translate literally):

“El Señor y la Señora Dursley, del número cuatro, Privet Drive, se enorgullecían de decir que eran perfectamente normales, muchas gracias. Eran las últimas personas que usted esperaría que se involucraran en algo extraño o misterioso, porque no creían en tales tonterías.”

‘Aesthetic’ Spanish Translation

The translation above is adequate. The problem is that this is a literary piece and perhaps the translation is too precise, and sounds a bit unnatural. It would be better to make some repairs and replacements:

“El Señor y la Señora Dursley, del número cuatro, Privet Drive, se enorgullecían de decir que eran ser perfectamente normales, muchas gracias. Eran las últimas personas que usted esperaría que se involucraran en algo extraño o misterioso, porque no creían en tales tonterías. Eran las últimas personas que llegarían a involucrarse en algo extraño o misterioso, porque simplemente no creían en tales tonterías.”

The words “decir que eran” is the literal translation of “to say that they were”. It would read better if we could shorten it to “de ser”, meaning simply “of being (perfectly normal)”.

Perhaps we could just strike out “muchas gracias”, the translation for “thank you very much.” This is a very British phrase, which provides a very clear intent (to stress the meaning of a phrase, in this case, that they are normal). Its translation is seldom used in Spanish though, perhaps because it carries an irony which some Spanish readers are slightly unaccustomed to. We will not cross it out, though it remains an arguable point.

Et tu, Brute?

The last phrase in the paragraph is quite beautiful in English, but in Spanish we could switch it around a little. The ‘precise’ translation we provided: “Eran las últimas personas que usted esperaría que se involucraran en algo extraño o misterioso, porque no creían en tales tonterías”, sounds a little bit clunky.

Larry David complains about the informality of Caesar when he was stabbed by Brutus, because Caesar used, according to Larry, the informal “tu” form: “Et tu Brute?” We have the reverse situation in this translated Harry Potter paragraph, because we resorted to using “usted” to replace “you’d”.

The ‘usted’ form is formal and J.K Rowling is using a warm tone, telling an incredible story. We could do away with the “usted” altogether by rearranging the sentence. We have thus crossed out the phrase completely above, and reorganized it from scratch.

Legal Translation Theory

We saw a precise and then an aesthetic translation of Harry Potter (English to Spanish). We will try to examine the issue of precision a bit more, by translating something from Spanish into English.

Imagine an American investor who wishes to build a factory or business in Colombia. The investor would certainly have to learn about labor law and probably get some legislation translated. Consider this quite dry passage from the Colombian labor code:

“Artículo 4. Servidores públicos. Las relaciones de derecho individual del trabajo entre la administración pública y los trabajadores de ferrocarriles, empresa, obras públicas y demás servidores del Estado, no se rigen por este Código, sino por los estatutos especiales que posteriormente se dicten.”

How would we translate this? All that matters is that it is as precise as humanly possible. Aesthetics or naturalness need not be considerations, even if the reading is quite clunky:

“Article 4. Public servants. The individual labor law relation between the public administration and the workers of railroads, companies, public works and other servants of the State, are not ruled by this Code, but by the special statutes which are later dictated.”

What an odd little passage: essentially one long phrase, too many commas, usage of rather clunky words (ie: “servants of the State”). The translation, regardless, is very precise and that is all we need or want. Since it is a legal translation, we must strive for total precision and pay no heed to the desire to make it read better.

Intermediate Examples

We have seen translation theory reflected in aesthetic literary translation from English into Spanish. We have also seen precise translation in legal translation from Spanish into English. What about intermediate examples? Are there no cases where we need a little bit of both?

Most translation, particularly in areas like advertising and academia will be about striking a balance between precision and naturalness. Precision must always be maintained, though not quite word-for-word like in a legal translation. The idea is to preserve meaning and intent. Also, it is important that the text reads well, though it is not necessary to devote too much time to making it beautiful.

Consider this example of a tour around Lisbon:

Día 13. Florencia-Roma (Miércoles)

Desayuno. Por la mañana visita de la ciudad, cuna del renacimiento y de la lengua Italiana. Pasearemos por esta ciudad rebosante de Arte, Historia y Cultura, admirando la Catedral de Santa María del Fiore, por donde pasaron personajes tan conocidos como Miguel Ángel o Dante Alighieri. Continuación hacia Roma. Alojamiento.

We could translate this passage as:

Day 13. Florence – Rome (Wednesday)

Breakfast. In the morning we will visit Florence, cradle of the Renaissance and of the Italian language. We will walk around this city full of art, history, and culture, admiring the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, known to historical figures such as Michelangelo or Dante Alighieri. We will continue towards Rome. Hotel.

translation theory for languages

This translation walks a fine line between precision and naturalness. It is precise, in the sense that it is basically all there but the words have been moved around:

  • We name Florence specifically, which the original text does not do.
  • We use “full” to replace “rebosante”. The most precise translation would be something like “overflowing”, but “full” will do nicely.
  • Also, note that we do not maintain some of the capital letters in the original “Arte, Historia y Cultura”, which we translate as “art, history and culture.”
  • In the final phrase we take some liberties. The original is “por donde pasaron personajes tan conocidos como Miguel Ángel o Dante Alighieri” and we translate this as “known to historical figures such as Michelangelo or Dante Alighieri”.

A more precise translation would be wordier, something like “where characters as well-known as Michelangelo or Dante Alighieri passed by”. We use a very swift “known to historical figures such as (…)” Again, it is basically all there in the sense that meaning and intent are respected, but we are giving more importance to a curt nice phrase than to a literal one.

The Gist of It

So, which one is it? Does translation theory demand precision or naturalness? Does it demand a mixture of both?

We are partial to precise translations. This should be the first instinct in a work of translation. Naturalness should be stressed only in literary translations and in some other specific content. Crucially, a client and a translator must talk to each other in detail about this and a translator must be very vocal about seeking approval for a focus on naturalness.

The problem is that a very different translation, although beautiful, sometimes is met with trepidation by the client.

A translator should follow a simple procedure:

  • Translator receives a text. Upon evaluation, the translator sets out to translate precisely.
  • If the text is literary or if the translator feels that the text will benefit from more naturalness and less literal precision, the translator should communicate this to the client.
  • Once the go-ahead is received, the translator may translate, trying to be precise in meaning and intent, but allowing for more beauty in the words.
  • Regardless, a translator will do well to be relatively prudent in how much changes are applied to a text.

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