During a recent visit to Iran a friend shared an interesting dilemma. She had just graduated from one of the most prestigious Universities in Tehran. While the faculty is renowned and acclaimed, and the standard for achievement is set very high, most of their textbooks were difficult to read. She specifically mentioned a textbook in Economics that was translated into Farsi. The text didn’t make sense. It was obvious that a highly technical text had been translated too literally. I remembered my own struggle as a young student in Iran and my frustration when studying textbooks that were translated. 

Then I thought how would these students master the subject matter without having access to a textbook that is held to as high a standard as their curriculum. How do we avoid similar pitfalls in translating different books, documents and texts into Farsi? What are the criteria for choosing a Farsi translator? How is the Farsi language different from other languages and is there an organization that can evaluate Farsi translators and award them certifications?

The difference between Farsi (Persian) and the Latin languages cannot be summarized only in the right to left writing and the use of a different alphabet. The translator needs to be familiar with how different notions and concepts are perceived by the culture. When seeking a translator for a technical document or a literary text in Farsi, education and fluency in both languages may not suffice. A deep understanding of both cultures and customs is also indispensable. The general rule is to find a translator who is a native speaker of Farsi and educated in both languages; and hopefully they do possess a deep understanding of both.

In the US, the American Translators Association (ATA) certifies interpreters and translators in most languages but not in Farsi. The lack of a centralized and uniform authority to certify and administer tests for Farsi (Persian) interpreters and translators has made it difficult for everyone to have an idea of how competent Farsi translators are.

A translation project can range from a simple phrase to a technical document. Words can be translated literally without conveying the meaning dictated by the culture. The use of the internet has made it easy to research US legal terms and the easy access to online dictionaries can help anyone render a translation, which in the absence of a uniform testing system to certify Farsi translators in the US, can be hard to evaluate.

So how do we choose the translator who has a high degree of understanding of, for example, legal terms and procedures of a lease contract in Iran? Of course if you are looking for a translator who can only translate a simple text without idioms or technical jargons you don’t need to hire a college-educated linguist. But if you are concerned about the quality and prefer translations that meet a high standard, then it becomes imperative to choose a translator who can convey the meaning without sacrificing the intent and the context.

Although a textbook in Economics may not require the translator to possess a deep understanding of the Iranian Islamic laws or the culturally charged idioms used in contemporary poetry, it does require a degree of sensitivity and the cultural perceptiveness for rendering precise translations that can help the reader capture the exact meaning of the materials and the intent of the author. Of course we can choose to settle for the fair and mediocre translation but is this really where we set the bar?

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