What is “Accurate Translation?”

Ask readers of the Bible and many will say that they are looking for an accurate translation. Ask many clients and they will tell you that they want to buy an accurate translation. Look at the results of surveys into what people want from interpreters and “accuracy” of one kind or another always tops the list.

But that is precisely the point. There is more than one kind of accuracy. To explain what I mean, I will be borrowing heavily from the work of J. L. Austin in his book “How to do things with words,” a book I highly recommend for those who are interested in how communication might actually work.

If we follow Austin then there are different kinds or levels of accuracy. I would like to illustrate this with a simple situation.

It’s around midnight and a moody teenager arrives loudly back into their parents’ house. They were told to be back home before ten. In the hallway stands their mum (or dad) and in their best, patient-now-but-don’t-test-me voice, the mum (or dad) says:

What time do you call this?

There are three things going on here. Firstly, there are the actual words said. The parent has spoken a question about the time. However, no sane teenager and no sane reader of those words would assume for a second that what the parent wants to hear is:

It’s almost midnight. Why do you ask?

The result of this answer would not be pretty for anyone involved! It would likely involve shouting, threats, banged doors and some kind of punishment. Obviously, seeing the parent’s question just as the words are and without context would be a misinterpretation.

So let’s go to the next level of what is going on. Obviously, in addition to their straightforward meaning, there was some kind of intention behind them. By sheer guess work (and experience!) I reckon that the idea behind these words was to point out that coming home late is not acceptable. So we could probably rephrase this sentence as:

Coming home at this time of night is not acceptable.

Or could we? I would doubt that any mum (or dad) would ever say these words just to explain the concept behind them to a teenager. Put another way, I doubt the idea was just to let the son (or daughter) know that midnight is not the same as ten pm. The next level then is the effect that the sentence had on the person who heard it. Perhaps the teenager apologised and decided to buy a more accurate watch. Perhaps they got in a huff and muttered something under their breath. Perhaps both of these happened at once.

Knowing that there are different levels of accuracy means that we can be much clearer about what we want from a translation. It is always impossible for translators to perfectly give you every single level of meaning so you need to choose your priorities.

Do you want the “words on the page” meaning that won’t give you the full story? Do you want the “force and intention” meaning that tries to produce the same kind of strength and tone of voice as the original at the cost of the words and their effect? Or do you want the translation to produce the same effect on the reader as the original did, at the cost of both the original wording and their original tone of voice?

It’s your choice.

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About Jonathan Downie

I am a conference interpreter, public speaking coach, preacher and researcher.
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