On a Chinese TV program I was watching the other day, one of the interviewees featured was a fitness aficionado. He mentioned that he allows himself "欺骗餐" every week as a part of his otherwise stringent diet rules. My ears perked up upon hearing that word: translated from the English term "cheat meal,” "欺骗餐" is an example of how a commonly used borrowed word can be a mistranslation in the first place.
The Chinese rendition literally means "deception meals." The problem? That's not what the word "cheat" means in this context. While to cheat can mean to deceive or trick--e.g. "Ben cheated Jerry out of all his money"--here it means to go against a rule, similar to cheating in an exam or a game. By eating a cheat meal, one is temporarily breaking a diet rule.
What would be a good translation then? If I had somehow been the first person to introduce the concept to the Chinese audience, I would've gone with "破戒餐." It literally means the "breaking-the-prohibition meal," and "breaking the ban" brings to mind the image of a Buddhist monk defying the vegetarianism rule and consuming meat. The existent concept in religious dietary practices will conveniently carry the meaning over to the context of dieting without our having to invent a new term for the new idea.
If I were to translate "cheat meal" in my work, though, I would stick with “欺骗餐,” the conventional, ingrained term despite my disagreement. It's a mistranslation, but people understand what it refers to. The wording is just a vehicle of meaning after all. But that certainly doesn't mean we shouldn't aim for well-thought-out translations that stay true to the meaning of the source text.
The example of translating "cheat meal" encapsulates the essential elements of translation:
1) In-depth understanding of the source text.
Source text comprehension comes down to every individual word, especially the seemingly easy ones that people might not bother to look up. As a translation reviewer, I've seen "raffle drum” mistranslated into "抽奖鼓" instead of "抽奖箱," a result of not knowing "drum" in English, unlike "鼓" in Chinese, means not only the percussion instrument but also a cylindrical container.
2) Perception of the context.
Context is a useful filter for potential misreading. I have seen quite a few translations where the word "effectively" is translated in the sense of achieving great results, whereas the source text is, in fact, critical of a situation. For example: "the new tax law effectively makes the rich richer." Instead of “有效地,” in this context, "effectively" should be “变相地” or “实质上.” Even when unfamiliar with the second meaning, a good translator perceptive of the context should be able to notice something is awry and pick up the dictionary.
3) Familiarity with the cultural, linguistic patterns of the target audience.
I am very adamant about producing translations that flow naturally. Whenever an expression to the same effect already exists in the target language, I eschew word-to-word translation that results in awkward phrasing. A simple example would be "non-habit-forming" drugs. I've seen literal translations such as "不形成习惯," which reads unnatural and unclear to native Chinese speakers. What we typically say in Chinese instead is "无依赖性," meaning that you will not end up relying on it to get on with your life. If it's not a new concept to the target audience, you don't need to invent a new phrase.
Above are just some essential components to a qualified translation. Only by scrutinizing every single word or phrase can one do it right. It's after solidifying these fundamentals that we begin to think about how to do it beautifully in terms of stylish and graceful writing.