The Elements of a Good Korean > English Translation

I recently reviewed a translation for an associate and in the process of doing so, I got to thinking about the different aspects of a good translation. Translation requires more than just a knowledge of two languages; other skills are involved too. The examples here are from the English translation of a Korean document I worked on, but the general translation principles are applicable to any document in any language and language pair.

A. Understand the Korean

This is the most basic requirement for a Korean > English translator and one cannot be considered a professional until his or her level in Korean is high enough to clearly understand the content to be translated. 

Example Source

당사에서 신규설비의 설치 또는 주요구조 부분을 변경한 후 근로자안전 또는 공정안전에 관련된 제반사항들의 완비여부를 확인하기 위한 절차를 규정하는데 있다.

Incorrect translation

The purpose of this document is to ensure the safety of workers after the installation of new equipment and altering parts of major structures, and also to perform checks ensuring a safe process of equipping and related matters at our company.

Correct translation

The purpose of this document is to describe the procedures for verifying whether or not various matters related to worker safety and process safety have been completed after the installation of new equipment and modification of parts of major structures at our company.

The two translations don't differ in overall gist, but the incorrect version lists the document purposes as "ensuring safety" and "performing checks". However, the document doesn't do these things; it describes the processes for doing them. The first version also misunderstands that all of the safety matters are completed after installation and modifications are carried out. 

The errors in this translation indicate that the translator did not understand the source correctly when doing the translation.

How to improve: Keep studying Korean and only take on projects with content that one is able to understand fully.

B. Translate with Precision

A Korean translator must be precise and thorough. Of course being overly literal is also a bad thing, but as much as possible, the full meaning of the source should be reflected in the English translation. And in technical documents like this one, it's better to err on the side of over-literalness than on the side of writing too loosely.

Example Source

       (1) 신설 또는 변경설비가 제작기준대로 제작되었는지 확인

       (2) 신설 또는 변경설비가 규정된 검사실시 유무 및 합격여부의 확인

Imprecise Translation

(1) Check that the setup and modified equipment has been manufactured in accordance with production levels.

(2) Check whether the setup and modified equipement has been installed according to the specification and installation standards.

Precise Translation

(1) Check that the newly installed or modified equipment has been manufactured in accordance with production standards.

(2) Check whether or not the newly installed or modified equipment has been inspected as prescribed and whether or not it has passed.

In (1), the source clearly says "production standards", so "production levels" is wrong. It seems unlikely that the Korean was misunderstood; more likely, not enough effort was made to come up with the most appropriate word. Also, "setup" is a somewhat careless choice of words when "newly installed" is clearly the correct English for the Korean word 신설.

However, the more serious issues are in (2) where the no effort is made in the imprecise English translation to reflect the full testing meaning and the "whether or not [it happened]" meaning of 여부.

The inadequacies of the first translation reflect a lack of effort and/or skill to be as precise as possible.

How to improve: Based on a clear understanding of the Korean, ensure that the meaning is fully reflected in the English. This requires more concentration and a deeper committment to perfection.

C. Choose suitable terminology

Using the right terminology can make all the difference, especially if the end-user is someone specializing in the field, since the end-user will have expectations about terminology that should be used.

Example Source

a. 배치도

b. 방폭지역 구분도

c. 위험성평가보고서

d. 공무/계장/전기 해당 기술자

Inadequate Terminology Translations

a. chart

b. explosion district classification

c. danger assessment report

d. respective project / section / electrical technician

Improved Terminology Translations

a. layout diagram

b. explosion area demarcation diagram

c. risk assessment report

d. respective engineering, instrumentation or electrical technician

Each of the inadequate terminology translations is lacking in different ways.

a. The word "chart" is just too general. It's basically an error of not having translated precisely.
b. The phrase "explosion district classification" is kind of correct, but it really doesn't communicate at all.
c. The phrase "danger assessement report" communicates just fine, but it's not the phrasing which would be expected in this document by the average end-user.
d. The words "project" and "section" are completely wrong. With research and a deeper consideration of the context, the correct translations can be arrived at.

How to improve: If possible, getting a glossary from the client or a previous translation for reference is ideal. This is not often possible though. Online dictionaries help, but they only go so far if one isn't familiar with the industry of the document (which, for Korean > English documents is very often the case.) Short of talking with an expert in the field, my Google Terminology Search Approach, while time-consuming and complicated, is the most powerful method I know of for mining good terminology. Ultimately, the English terminology will be as good as the effort the translator makes to refine it.

D. Translate Consistently

Especially in technical documents, a word translated one way in one place should not be translated differently elsewhere.

Sometimes we'll find two words in the Korean source, both of which could be translated just as well into either of two English words. Resist the temptation to use translations interchangeably and instead, pick one English translation for one of the Korean words and the other for the other; then stay consistent throughout.

Example source

주요구조 부분을 변경한 후 

[and then next paragraph…]

주요구조의 변경을 수행한 후

Inconsistent Translation

after altering of major structures

after performing changes to major structures

Consistent Translation

after changing parts of major structures

after performing changes to major stuctures

In practice, there could be different contexts that would justify apparent inconsistencies, but in this example, and in most technical documents like this, consistency is key. Consistency is also extremely helpful if, halfway through a document, the translator figures out that a particular term should be changed. By having translated consistency, the correction can be applied painlessly with a global search and replace of the document.

How to improve: Keep track of the terminology being used and make sure to use it consistency.

E. Write with good style

Being a good Korean > English translator also requires writing English well and not letting it be obvious that the English is a translation of Korean by mimicking the Korean sentence structures and phrasing.

Korean Source

점검은 점검항목에 따라서는 기계설치공사완료 시, 시운전 전 또는 시운전 시에 행할 수 있다.

Awkward English Translation

Inspection can be performed at the time of mechanical completion and before test operating, according to the inspection list.

Better English

Inspection may be performed according to the inspection items at the time of mechanical completion and before or at the time of test operation.

Here, "according to the inspection list" should not have been tagged on to the end of the first English translation version; it's very awkward. The final read-through step is crucial for improving the flow of the English translation. This read-through corresponds with Step #3: Polished Draft in my Four-Step Translation Process.

How to improve: Faithfully follow the four steps in the Four-Step Translation Process.

F. Pay particular attention to formatting

It may not seem important, but formatting can make ALL THE DIFFERENCE in a client's perception of the quality of work delivered. Many translators don't make this small extra effort, so those who do stand out from the crowd.

Korean Source

2011-11-15 오후 8-56-54
Carelessly Formatted Translation

2011-11-15 오후 8-59-46

Nicely Formatted Translation

2011-11-15 오후 9-00-26

With the right formatting techniques, it only takes a few moments to set the tabs and margins. 

How to improve: Accept my assertion that formatting matters and always try harder to follow the guidlines outlined at Basic Formatting Guidelines.

G. Don't skip the final polishing

As with formatting, a non-Korean speaking client will evaluate the quality of the work on how it looks in English. Typos and missing text reflect very badly on the work and will cause the client to become suspicious of the translation itself. This polishing effort corresponds with Steps #3 and #4 in my Four-Step Translation Process.

Ironically, a badly translated job can often be perceived as good if the formatting and English phrasing read well. On the other hand, a very-good translation that is formatted badly with typos will be judged harshly.

How to improve: Faithfully follow the four steps in the Four-Step Translation Process.

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