September 26, 2011

Technical document needs literal translation

A question recently asked on a Chinese database forum is about the translation of the Oracle database term "recursive call" to "递归调用". That's a perfect literal translation. But the problem is that the word "recursive" or "递归" in computer programming refers to the fact that a function calls itself, as in this pseudo code:

function f()
{ //some condition to stop the loop
  call f();

In case of Oracle, a recursive call has nothing to do with calling the function or routine from within itself. Instead, it refers to a background, lower-level, normally database kernel-level, function call, not issued by the user. (In case of PL/SQL, it's a user-written SQL modified by the PL/SQL engine behind the scenes.)

This is an interesting topic to translation in that I believe, all technical translation should be literal, using the word, in the target language, that has long been established as a proper translation. In this case, "recursive" has only one translation "递归" in Chinese, with no other choice. As to whether the original document used the correct word, it's the original author's responsibility. A translator can add a translator's note to his translation, but should not choose a word that he thinks more closely matches the original meaning.

Similarly, "object-oriented programming" should indeed be translated as "面向对象的编程", even though I think "object-central", "object-centered", or "object-focus" would be better in the original language. And Oracle's "recursive call" may simply be called "lower-level call", so as to not raise the eye-brow of a seasoned programmer unnecessarily, not to mention the fact that an Oracle PL/SQL programmer may actually write code that has a real recursive call as in this example.

Having said that, I won't go further to say Christopher Columbus' "Indian" should be translated as "印度人" instead of "印第安人", which is a perfect translation. Columbus made a big mistake to equate American Indians to Indian Indians (so to speak). An obvious mistake is better corrected in translation if incorrect in the original language. But a word only questionable in the source is better left alone in the target language. After all, a translator may do more wrong in trying to outsmart the original author, causing endless confusion among the readers of the translation.

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