Proofreading and QA: Can a Translation Be Too Perfect?

Technically this question is a nonstarter. A translation being “too perfect” means something is wrong with it. That makes it imperfect. And a good proofreading will fix that.

But that’s not what we’re really asking here. When proofreading a document, many times the proofreader will see something that is in all points perfect, but that’s, in some way, incorrect. It could be a matter of context, UI, tone, many things. Usually when a translator sees a text, they will do their darnedest to give a translation that’s grammatically correct, free of spelling mistakes, and that’s close to the original message.

But what if they shouldn’t always do that? Let’s look at 3 situations where translating perfectly isn’t necessary best.

#1 Conveying character personalities and backstories

We see this a lot in video game and movie translations. A character will have a specific way to talk and behave that will affect his word-choice. Usually their speech will be less than perfect. They will, for example, make syntax mistakes and use bizarre vocabulary. Now the translator has to spot that and convey it in his translation.

And the right thing to do is not always obvious. Let’s take something that happens a lot. If your character is supposed to talk like a redneck, how do you convey that into, let’s say, a Chinese translation? The temptation might be to translate everything correctly, with no shaky grammar structures and expressions. But does it make sense in the general context of the game/movie?

Picture of Martin from Cars 3.
This guy doesn’t sound like a redneck in French. He just sounds kind of… slow.

And for the person doing the proofreading, if you notice the discrepancy between the source text and the translated text, how do you go about making stylistic changes? Changes that, by the way, go against the translator’s choice. Sometimes the best thing to do is to “dirty up” the translation a little. Even if it looks less good on paper, it might be a better fit for your characters. If your character swears like a sailor in English but sounds like a schoolgirl in French, it might be time for the person in proofreading to make some changes.

#2 UI limitations

This one’s a no-brainer. However, it is rarely caught in the proofreading stage, but almost certainly in the QA stage.

Let’s have a look at the running machines at my gym. This is the UI when you set them to English:

Even in English the text boxes are pretty tight…


And this is the UI when you set the machine to Spanish:

Spanish translation of the workout machine menu. The text is too big for the boxes.
The Spanish translation was bound to overflow.

The translation was technically correct, ahem, even perfect. The translator didn’t miss any word. The person in proofreading probably agreed. There was no reason to change anything.

However, given the UI limitations (it already looks pretty tight in English), there was no way the Spanish (or German, Italian, French, etc.) text was going to fit in the small space alloted.

The good news is there are several ways to shorten a text. If you know your translation will be implemented in a UI with character limits, you can either let your translation or proofreading team know about it beforehand and the final product should be fine.

#3 Neologisms or expressions with no equivalent

Your nexus-tech phase shifter is not the only thing that might be challenging to translate. Existing, common expressions that make sense in your source language might have no equivalent in your target language. You could have an exact translation of the “phase shifter” that’s just too much of a mouthful in another language.

Vega Conflict Game with some of the neologisms used for weapons.
Some of these weapons will have very challenging translations. But that’s part of the fun of being a translator!

In that case, the translator might choose a literal translation, find a local equivalent that means about the same thing, or get creative. When proofreading such translations, the choice is a little harder. You have to have solid arguments for backing your choices to change a translation for which nothing is technically wrong.

If you are the client, you can decide whether you want your proofreading team or your translation team to have the final say in stylistic matters. Maybe the proofreading/QA side of operations is less focused on the technical aspects of translation and can see the general context more clearly. Maybe not. Either way, you should know that sometimes the translation is improved by not sticking to the source text too closely.

Proofreading can improve a translation by making it imperfect

Translations that look good on paper may look too stiff when seen in context. A good QA or proofreading can solve this problem, as long as the person doing it has enough power to make changes. If they are limited to spelling errors and typos, then you’ll just have to accept a few sentences might sound out of character, or an overflowing text here and there.


Do you have examples of translations that were too formal for their context? Too casual? Let us know in the comments, we’d love to see them!