Some Aspects of Editing Translations

I am currently editing a Bahasa Melayu translation of an English YA novel.

This is the fifth time I’m editing a translated novel, and I am encountering the same problems as I did when I edited my first translated work.

In my opinion, most of the problems arise from the following:

  1. The translator’s command of English is poor.
  2. The translator does not have much experience.
  3. The translator has never worked with an editor who offers feedback and advises on/asks for changes to the translations.
  4. It would appear that the translator does not use a dictionary, or look up words, phrases slang, country-specific terminology etc online. There is also no sign of fact-checking, research and extra reading done to aid in the translation work.
  5. The publisher’s  budget doesn’t allow for the hire of a translator who does not have issues 1 to 4.

Specific problems:

  1. Inaccurate or literal translation when the translator does not understand/misunderstands English idioms, expressions and slang words; English words that are not commonly used in Malaysia; and words and phrases that are used in the country the story is set in.
  2. Casual dialogue is formalised, and rendered stiff and unnatural.
  3. Malaysian cultural norms or practices are imposed on the characters in the story. For example, an American child would naturally address her older sister by her name, but the translator use ‘Kakak’ in the translation.
  4.   Long and complex sentences are misunderstood and inaccurately translated.

I don’t know if there exist any English-to-Malay translators who are fully proficient in both languages. However, I believe that it more important for translators to be good writers in the language that they are translating into, in this case Malay. However, if they are not as fluent in English as they are in Malay, they must take steps (look it up; ask someone; don’t assume) to ensure that this does not interfere with their work.

English is my first English. I speak, think, write, and dream in English. Bahasa Melayu is the language I did my primary and secondary schooling in. I am not so proficient as to feel able to translate English into Malay, but I am becoming more and more confident in my ability to edit translations of English stories into Malay. In my position, double checking everything is a must. I use Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka’s English-Malay/Malay-English dictionary, as well as Google Translate, and I also look up phrases, and cultural references online. If there is the slightest doubt, I check, and if I can’t find the answer through research, I ask someone. This is what I hope translators will do if they are unsure about anything in the source text.

Of course, I am not claiming to be the perfect editor, but I do feel that I am improving, and I’m going to work hard to continue to improve.

I’m just wondering what it’s like to edit a document when you have zero knowledge of the language the source text is written in. I believe this was the case with Cheryl Klein, the editor who worked with translator Cathy Hirano on the first two Moribito books. I should try to set up an interview with both Cheryl and Cathy as I believe translators and editors would learn a lot from their experiences working on those two books.



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