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Translation in Mongolia: More Art than Science

Mongolian and English are hardly two of the most compatible languages.  Vastly different in their origins and structure, translation from one to the other can be a difficult prospect.  Mongolian is a Turkic-Altaic language that generally uses a subject-object-verb structure, which takes some time for Westerners learning Mongolian to get their heads around.  Translating from one language into the other takes a certain amount of care and finesse. 

If you or your company is going to offer translation in Mongolia you need to have a stiff upper lip.  As I said, not only is the act of translation itself difficult but many Mongolians are notoriously picky, for lack of a better word, when it comes to translation.  My boss often tells of her experience of having the Mongolian Minerals Law translated into English.  A group of five or so Mongolian translators were brought together to translate the law into English.  The translators were from various mining companies, mining-related NGOs and law firms and the idea was to bring in a group in order to ensure the best translation possible was made.  Well, weeks later a consensus was finally reached but not without much gnashing of teeth and hair-pulling.  Nobody could agree on wording, one translator wanted “contract”, for example, while another wanted to use “agreement.”  Needless to say such nitpicking is going to cause translation time to slow down considerably.

Technical translations, like the Minerals Law that combines legal, mining, and geological terminology, can prove to be extremely difficult and can leave the translator open to much criticism.  Whichever end of the translation you may be on, whether it is ordering the translation or actually doing the translation, both sides need to be prepared for a little give and take.  The translator is going to need to accept the fact that someone out there is going to disagree with her translation and the client must understand translation is not an exact science and thus should be willing to work with the translator to produce the best possible document.

Another issue to keep in mind is when a translation is finished it will rarely sound as if it was written by a native speaker.  A reader of a translated document will invariably find what s/he considers a mistake in the translation.  This can occur due to any number of reasons, including differences in language patterns, cultural differences, or differences in ways ideas are conveyed.   For example, I think English is more of a direct, to-the-point language, especially in business matters, while Mongolian seems to be a little more descriptive, taking its time to get to the point.  Most translators also translate documents quite literally instead of imposing too much of themselves or their interpretation onto the translation, which may also lead to further perceived problems in the translation.

So while on the face of it translation seems as if it should be a fairly straight-forward Point A to Point B process, it rarely is, especially in the case of such differing languages as Mongolian and English.  Translation in Mongolia is a balancing act that tries to convey the idea and meaning from the original language while simultaneously attempting to make it sound as natural as possible in the translated language.

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