For translators, is there an authoritative source they go to where they can check translations are accurate?

For example say there was a political conference and someone wasn't sure if the word should be "distraught" or "upset" when quoting a Chinese diplomat. Is there anywhere they can go (an offical body, a book etc.) to get some sort of official information or where they can challenge a current translation of a word?

I've seen articles written in newspapers where the translation doesn't quite fit or they use a word that is archaic and I wonder if that is an agreed upon translation or it is just a dictionary look-up.

  • Something like a cross between a dictionary and a style manual but specifically for translators?
    – jsj
    Dec 15, 2011 at 2:13

2 Answers 2


We (professional translators) generally check accepted sources such as official government publications from the government involved. We may take versions in a language that is not the native or strongest language for that country with a grain of salt, but often we have to accept them even if they sound bad. Remember that a translation being "official" has nothing to do with it being accurate! Many official English translations of Chinese-language speeches or documents are really poor English, but we use the awkward sounding English formulations because they are the official version.

There are usually commonly-used formulaic utterances in Chinese (for example) that are accepted as having a particular meaning in English for diplomatic purposes. Again, that would be determined by referring to the small circle of official translators at high levels, or reference to published bilingual editions of speeches that come from official sources. Just because Johnny No-name says the word should be translated "X" and not "Y" doesn't make his version official (and, as has been said, just because the official version says "Y" and not "X" doesn't make that correct.)

Things get more interesting when you are interpreting in a court situation. At that time, there tends to be a lot of he-said, she-said going on as both sides challenge the exact wording chosen by the interpreter or translator whose work is being dissected. Of course both sides simply want their point of view to prevail. The fact is that language is not simple, and there's generally no absolute correct answer for what is the "correct" way to say something in another language unless the original statement is unbelievably simple. Even when it is, if a witness (or a government official!) wants to be non-responsive, the interpreter is left looking silly as he accurately interprets the response. I was in a court case once in a local court where the witness was asked how long the leash on a dog was (it was a dog attack case) and the witness actually answered "The leash was red." That's not an accuracy issue per se, but often if the audience doesn't understand the second language, it seems like it is a problem with the interpreter's accuracy.


Like for any other language, I think it depends a lot on the translator's skills. The dictionary or reference book cannot "know" what the diplomat intended to say. Only the translator can know, based on the context, the diplomat's personality, etc. Not sure a book could help here.

  • I don't believe this to be true. To my knowledge there's even an official Chinese translators periodical / magazine where they discuss definitions. I no longer have access to the library where I previously saw these.
    – going
    Dec 23, 2011 at 3:00

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