Document translation has been around almost as long as written records have been. When cultures with different languages come in contact with one another, it is often beneficial to both to have translations of each others’ written works. For centuries now, groups of scholars have spent their lives in trying to create the best translations possible, that stay true to the original but communicate the ideas well in the new language. Even with modern technology and cross-cultural interactions, good document translation is still very much an art, and those who excel at it devote a considerable part of their education to studying language, its nuances, and the principles that earlier translators have come up with the help create the most accurate and useful translations. One of the great dangers of document translation is favoring a literal, word-for-word translation over transparency, or making the document sound as though its author could have written the text in the new language.
Some translators get so caught up in creating a good metaphrase, or literal translation, that they don’t realize that many of the ideas will simply not work in the new, or target, language. A balance of the literal translation with a more natural translation, called a paraphrase, is necessary in most cases to give the translated work as much of its original vigor and meaning as possible. Equally important is a solid understanding of both the source and the target languages, so that words with multiple meanings can be interpreted correctly according to their context. There are some historic examples in which too much metaphrase and not enough knowledge of the source language produced sometimes negative but often humorous results. Early translators of the Old Testament from Hebrew to Latin made a mistake that had a huge effect on Catholic culture for many centuries. In the story of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, the Hebrew word keren is used.
This word has several meanings in Hebrew, but instead of the more fitting “beam of light,” the translators selected “horn.” For centuries afterward, Moses was depicted in Medieval religious art with horns growing out of his head, and anti-Semitics of the time used this idea to spread their hatred of the Jews by saying that they were devils. Another more humorous example of metaphrasis and lack of understanding in document translation is a book called English as She is Spoke, originally published in 1883. It is believed that a Portuguese man by the name Pedro Carolino tried to create a phrase book of English for Portuguese speakers. The only problem with this was that he didn’t know English. He did know French, however, so he used a French-English dictionary to translate a Portuguese-French phrasebook that had been published several years earlier by Jose da Fonseca. The result is, as Mark Twain so beautifully put it, absolutely “perfect” in its absurdity.
Idiomatic phrases do not translate well especially between three different languages, and Carolino didn’t understand the grammatical structure of English, which creates big problems when trying to translate sentences accurately. Instead of translating a Portuguese phrase into the English “let’s have some fun fishing,” Carolino created the sentence “let us amuse rather to the fishing.” He didn’t know his final target language, English, so he couldn’t check the translations he was creating for accuracy. This example of bad document translation got so much attention when it was published that it is now a favorite of translators in the English-speaking world, and it does a lot to teach those involved in translation that no matter how well-meaning they may be, if they don’t understand their target language and they try to be too literal, they could very well produce works as laughable as English as She Is Spoke.