Only 40% of the world’s population speaks one language, which means the remaining 60% speak at least two fluently. In the United States, our citizens speak at least 350 different languages in their homes, and a good many of those are also fluent in English. With the number of multi-lingual individuals in our communities, it can be tempting to hire a friend, colleague, or student to translate documents for you. However, as the following study shows, multi-lingual individuals without proper training to translate official documents make many common errors.
A 2019 study1 published in the International Journal of Linguistics, Literature and Translation described an experiment conducted by English language majors at the Universitas Negeri Gorontalo in Indonesia. Participating students were in their final year of studies and based upon the completed curricula of several years of intense English language studies, they were expected to have the skills required to accurately translate literary works. Students were provided two essays to translate from Indonesian to English: one argumentative and one comparison/contrast.
What they discovered is that while the students had exemplary academic knowledge of the two languages, they made many errors in their translations. Just some of the common errors included:
- Word forms. Word forms represent the multiple ways a word can appear in a language. For example, “wonderful” can be “full of wonder,” “wonderment,” “wonderful”, “wonderfully,” etc. Students often used the wrong form, which did not make sense within the text.
- Plurality. Errors were made where source text indicated many options but the translated text referred to singular options and vice versa.
- Degree of comparison. These errors were related to the incorrect use of adjectives like “suitable,” “pretty,” and “stunning.” The words may be similar, but the degrees to which they emphasize the characteristic are different.
- Tenses. Errors were made in past, previous, and future tenses applied to sentences.
- Modal auxiliary. These are words like “could,” “should,” “would,” “may,” and “must” that are used in conjunction with a verb to further describe the intent of the message. By incorrectly applying these descriptors, the meaning of the translated text was altered.
Even greater was the error in how the students performed the work. Translating not only requires that word-for-word choices are accurate, but that the overall intent and meaning of the content is accurately translated in a manner that a person speaking the translated language would understand. The recommended method is to read the work in its entirety first to understand the content as a whole before beginning to translate. In the experiment, students began word for word translating out the gate and with this detailed focus, students “missed the forest for the trees” with their finished works.
What this study shows is that even with the right talents and the best intentions, bilingual individuals do not necessarily have the prerequisite skills specific to accurate translations.
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Napu, Novriyanto & Hasan, Rifal. (2019). Translation Problems Analysis of Students’ Academic Essay. 10.32996/ijllt.2019.2.5.1. ↩