It seems so simple. You have a message in Dutch, and you need it in English. You just have it translated and you’re done. Right? Wrong! Nine times out of ten, a straightforward translation is not really what you need.
Who, where, what, why
Sometimes you read a piece of text – in English or Dutch – and you just know it’s a ‘bad translation’. But was it a bad translation? In my view, most translation problems arise because we’re not asking ourselves enough questions before we start. Who is the text for? Where is it going? What does it need to achieve? And why do we want to translate it in the first place?
Who – The audience
The first thing you need to ask yourself when you start translating is ‘Who will be reading this?’ To make a good translation, you need to be able to empathise with the audience. If you know – more or less – what prior knowledge the audience is likely to have, it will be easier to gear your translation in the right direction. A non-Dutch audience may be unfamiliar with some of the content in the original, which will then need to be explained. And sometimes there are parts in the original that are totally irrelevant for your particular audience. These are then best left out altogether.
Where – What kind of English?
A closely related question is ‘Where is the text going?’ In other words, will it end up all around the world? Or in a specific place? This question is relevant, because you need to know what kind of English you should use. Are your readers native speakers of English? Are they in the UK, the US, or somewhere else? Or will your text mainly be read by non-native speakers of English? You need to take all this into account to make sure your spelling and vocabulary reflects the kind of English the readers are used to. And if your audience is non-native, you should be careful about using clever idioms or complex grammatical constructions.
What – The purpose
What is the translation supposed to achieve? Is it intended to inform, persuade, encourage or warn people? Just as in any piece of writing, the purpose of the translation is something you need to be aware of, so you can take cultural differences into account. For example, if you use the direct Dutch way of communicating in English, you may step on some toes in other cultures, and your message may overshoot its intended goal.
Why – Managing expectations
Why do you actually need the text in English? Is it just to inform your global management team about an internal decision? Or do you need your brochure in English so you can give it to potential clients outside the Netherlands? Are these clients expecting the same kind of information as your Dutch clients? Or is the market different? There are many different reasons why you need a translation – it’s essential the translator knows what yours are.
Once you’ve answered all these questions, you will often find that what you actually need is a slight rewrite of your Dutch text in English, with a clear view of your purpose and audience in mind. This doesn’t need to take much longer or be much more expensive than a ‘normal’ translation. You actually save time – and money – if you get the message right the first time round. In the end, it’s all about communication. The form of the message (i.e., the way it is written) should never get in the way of the message itself. If your message in English achieves what it is supposed to achieve, your translation mission has been accomplished.