It would seem fair to assume that a translation can only be as good as the original, and there is truth in that. However, a good translator needs to be a good writer too, with the ability to spruce the text up a little if need be.
The least polished text I have worked on was a rough draft put together by a non-native English speaker whose English was barely understandable, with endless elementary mistakes and typos, repeated words, ill-constructed and long-winded sentences, not to mention the inconsistent spelling of the company name – basically, a jolly blend of English and gibberish. At least enthusiasm still emanated from it. Although it initially looked like a headache of a job, I soon saw the comical side of it and decided to use my creativity. Rather than try to work out what was said literally and drive myself dizzy questioning every clause, I decided to step back and think about what the text was trying to convey instead, effectively copywriting the text into a smooth, coherent whole as I went along. (That’s where the alchemy comes in…)
Having said that, although I am very happy to work my linguistic magic on a document where necessary, it is not the translator’s role to copywrite the text. By providing a well-written document, the client determines the style and tone and ultimately controls the impact of the text in line with the business’ image. For instance…
I was recently commissioned to translate the website of a Parisian tailor. My client, the web designer, had told me that the text had been composed by a copywriter – and I can certainly believe it: it was one of the most beautifully written texts I have had the privilege to work on to date. It was clear, rich in well-chosen vocabulary and the style was as refined as the product it promoted. The text reflected the perfectionist demands of tailoring and of the tailor himself. A true delight to translate!
The challenge there was to match the copywriter’s talent and to produce a translation worthy of the source text. Quite something to get your teeth into but rewarding, especially when the client confirms being pleased with the translation.