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Voluntary Simplicity in Translation

Lucie Lapointe
(Language Update, Volume 5, Number 2, 2008, page 23)

Caught up in our routines and driven by production standards, we all too often forget that our translation has a target audience. As Jean Delisle puts it so well, "the writer of pragmatic texts . . .  adapts what he has to say according to the nature of the message and the audience at whom it is aimed. A pragmatic text is didactic. The translator of pragmatic texts must therefore be concerned with his readers."1

At the very beginning of my career with the Translation Bureau, one of my revisers made the following comment: "Your translation is good, but those words wouldn’t come out of that person’s mouth." Now that I am a reviser, I often see the same error. The same sentence will be translated differently for a letter than it will for a sales brochure. In the days of Prime Ministers Chrétien and Martin (and Trudeau before them), translations were often produced for Francophone requesters, which is not so much the case today. Nowadays, another factor needs to be kept in mind: the person’s level of proficiency in the target language. There is no point in using fancy phrases and big words if they sound fake in the mouth of the person who has to say them. At times, we have to practise voluntary simplicity, as the popular phrase goes. It is sometimes better to stick not only to simple words, but to simple structures.

It is also important to remember who wrote the text. Was it a professional writer (an endangered species) or a subject matter expert? Since everybody is a writer nowadays, we are almost always asked to translate poorly written texts. Some texts are written by authors who, like some translators, find it hard to resist the temptation of intellectual laziness. And since the Internet makes their lives easier, cutting and pasting is very popular. The translator must then go through the process, which the writer did not bother with, of restoring the logical connections or eliminating unnecessary repetition.

To think that in university I once found a professor pretentious for telling us that he would sometimes improve on the text of a famous writer he was translating. Since then, I have often seen translations that were better than many source texts, and I am sure you have too!

In conclusion, here is a quick tip: Do not hesitate to submit your texts to what Flaubert called l’épreuve du gueuloir [saying it out loud], and put yourself in the user’s shoes. If you get tangled in a sentence, most likely the person who will have to say or read it will too.

A word to the wise . . . .

Notes

  • Back to the note1 Translation: An Interpretive Approach, University of Ottawa Press, 1988, p. 17.