Translation Tips 2: Understanding the Role of the Translator

You might think that the above diagram represents the task of a translator: that he takes a work written in a particular language and converts it into a text in a different language. However, in my opinion the representation below would be a better and more accurate one:

In this diagram, the role of the translator is perceived in a slightly different way. His function is to to convey the ideas of the original author to those people who cannot access and understand what that person has written, due to their not knowing the language. The objective of the translator is thus to facilitate understanding for the reader; and the new text he creates is the tool that he uses to achieve this. He thus acts as the middle man between the author and the reader.

“So what?” you might be thinking. How does this change anything? It affects quite a lot actually, and hopefully the examples below will serve to clarify this.

Accuracy vs Understanding

Consider the following translation:

قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم إِذَا تَشَاجَرْتُمْ فِى الطَّرِيقِ فَاجْعَلُوهُ سَبْعَةَ أَذْرُعٍ

 The Messenger of God, peace and blessings of God be upon him, said, “If you differ over the [width of the] road (1), then make it seven ells.” (Sunan al-Tirmidhi)

According to the first paradigm, the above translation would be fine and the translator would have done his job, seeing as he has converted the text from Arabic to English. But according to the second one, it is a bit problematic, due to the word “ells”, which has been chosen as the translation for the Arabic term “adhru’“. When I first saw this I genuinely thought that it was a spelling mistake or something, since I had never encountered this word before. But when I researched it I found out that it is an actual word, and that it is an accurate translation for the word “adhru’“. However, according to the second understanding of the role of the translator, merely providing an accurate translation is not enough, since in this case he has not adequately facilitated understanding for the reader. Most people, I think, would be unfamiliar with the word “ells” and would be left wondering as to what it means. So either a footnote would need to be added to explain it, or an alternative translation would have to be used. Here the word “arm-lengths” might be a better selection.

 Target Audience

According to the second diagram, it is important for the translator to always bear in mind his target audience, i.e. the people he thinks will read whatever it is he has written. This will influence the way he translates and the resultant translation that will arise. Take a look at the following two translations: Ummah Forum’s translation and Shari’ah Program’s translation. The original text here is “Qisas al-Nabiyyin“, a book for young children about the lives of the Prophets ‘alaihimus salaam. They are both translations of the exact same text, and yet they are vastly different! And this is because of their respective target audiences: for the first, it is young English-speaking children; and for the second it is adults who are learning Arabic as a second or third language. The second one is thus a lot more direct and literal, and makes copious use of footnotes to highlight the Arabic grammatical structures found in the text. The first is a lot simpler to read and doesn’t have any footnotes or explanations in brackets. It is not to say that one is better than the other: they are just different approaches. This then highlights just how much of an impact the target audience has in influencing the translation process.

Another example of how this idea would affect the decision-making process when translating is when one has to deal with the benedictions which come after the names of Prophets or pious people, such as “‘alaihis salaam” or “rahimahullah“. If the audience is mostly non-Muslims, it would probably be better to translate such terms in order to better achieve the aim of facilitating understanding. But most, if not all Muslims are aware of what these phrases mean, so if they are the target audience then the translator could opt to leave them transliterated or to use an icon such as   to represent them.


In the previous post on Translation Tips I mentioned that the most important thing for a beginner translator to try and do is to break free from literal, word-by-word translations. So if you can make the necessary mental shift concerning what it is that your role as a translator is, as outlined above, then hopefully it will become easier for you to begin doing that.

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One Response to Translation Tips 2: Understanding the Role of the Translator

  1. Jazakum Allahu khairn… very helpful topic.

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