Is there such a thing as perfect translation?

Similar to writing, a good translation work is almost never achieved without revisions. Suppose you provide a senior editor with an article which has been edited 3 times and request her for editing service without telling her it has been edited. The most likely thing to happen is that you receive the article with some tracked changes. Yes, she has made yet more modifications to the text. The same holds true for a translation work!

In fact, I believe most translators would agree that there are at least three stages involved in their knowledge conveyance process, namely Translation (T) in a narrower sense, Editing (E), and Proofreading (P). This is also why T, E, and P are deemed as three types of services and are usually rated differently in this industry.

This prevalent practice may strike a novice user of translation service as odd and unreasonable. Since agencies and independent translators often trumpet about their services, why can't they provide ultimate perfect translation (and most importantly apply one-time rate for the task) when they get a request? The truth is, there is no such a thing as perfect translation.

The reason for this lies in the constant evolving nature of language. Ten years ago, a good Chinese translation for mobile phones was Da-ge-da (大哥大), a term which depicts relatively more the size than the function of the phone. Today, the same translation is already obsolete and will probably die out in the future. A good translation for the same word now is Shou-ji (手機). But is it the perfect translation, if another alternative Xing-dong-dian-hua (行動電話) is taken into considertaion? Even if it is, will it stay perfect?

Another reason for the non-existence of perfect translation is the variety of purposes for which people use language. Based on the audience you are targeting, "Pick up like a pro" can be translated into various ways. For a cellphone holster provider to market their product, Jie ting jia shi, li xian zhuan ye (接聽架勢,立顯專業) is evidently a better choice than Xue de xiang yang dian (學得像樣點). However, if the the same sentence appears in an encouragement letter from a mother to her daughter studying abroad, then the latter translation wins out.

Finally, there is also the factor of people's subjective opinions toward language. As people favor different styles of speech, they can deliberately opt for one expression over another. This can be evidenced by the common practice of establishing client-specific glossaries by localization companies. Take my experiecne for example. "Click" should always be translated as an yi xia (按一下) for client A, while for client B, an xia (按下) should always be used without exception. Under these circumstances, translation is more like a product which can be custom-made.

Hence, for customers who are seeking ultimate perfect translation out there, my suggestion is: modify your goal by picking the ones who attend to your needs and giving them enough time and money to exercise their minds on your text.

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