A brief journey into the strange world of translation

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Translation buyers the world over have peculiar beliefs: some believe that just because they would say something in one particular way means that no other turn of phrase or choice of words could ever be considered anything other than preposterous.  People have their very own idiosyncratic way of expressing themselves, based on their upbringing, socioeconomic status, and so on and so forth. By the time they need a translation, their language “finger print” has further been infected by the jargon of their profession:  bankers speak one way, builders another and lawyers not only overcomplicate what they say to hold on to their expertise, they also have their very own level of hell to go to.

Ever heard a policeman talk? They have this peculiar way of dressing up even the most mundane things in a veil of pseudo-legalese mumbo-jumbo, so that they sound like they are testifying at all times.  They don’t see, they observe. They don’t run after people, they engage in pursuit on foot. They also say rather odd things such as “The suspect appeared to be carrying a 9mm semi-automatic pistol”. He “appeared”? Really? You can identify the type of gun but can’t tell if the suspect is carrying it or if the gun is defying physics by staying attached to the suspect’s hand against his will?

The translator’s lot is to deal with this variety of sometimes nonsensical language and render it in a different language. This is not as easy as it sounds. Different languages cover different ideologies, idiosyncrasies and cater for large numbers of different speakers. The diversity of English speakers is not a phenomenon limited to English. It exists in every language.  Each language, however grammatically complex and large its vocabulary, is spoken by a variety of people who believe their version of the language is the correct one. They may tolerate/understand other people’s version under the tolerant banner of “different stroke for different folks”, but once they start paying for a translation, they don’t want to pay for someone else’s stroke.

I once delivered a translation to a person – let’s call him Mr Gargamel – which was done by a very senior, respected translator, who was an expert in the field. His mastery of the jargon in both the source and target language was second to none in our books, so I was a little taken aback when Mr Gargamel wrote a vitriolic email complaining about “unacceptable” deviations from the original. The backbone of his contention was that our translator had used the term “smurf opener” instead of “bottle smurfer”. Now, if you know your cultural history of the Smurfs, you will no doubt know that both are acceptable and that the Smurf village managed to overcome the once deeply divisive “smurf opener/bottle smurfer” issue by embracing the multi-cultural nature of their society. Clearly, that news had not reached Mr Gargamel.

On another absurd occasion, I had a very polite German person on the phone – let’s call him Fritz. We had delivered him a translation into English of a brochure outlining a vast range of luxurious Bavarian sausages. Now, not being a native English speaker (on account of having been born and raised in the sausage-mining village of Hottentotenattentaterunterhosen), Fritz did not actually complain about the quality per se of the translation. No, his beef was more a matter of localisation. The locale in question, though, seemed to be his head. We spent a good half hour on the phone changing phrases such as “high-quality sausage meat” to “highest quality meat of the sausage” which, though incorrect in English, sounded much better to the target audience in his head.

In this modern day and age of excessive consumerism and glorification of the individual, translators have to become tailors, adapting their translations to match the vision of their client, sometimes to the detriment of logic. A good tailor may not make fashionable clothes, but they are famous in all clichéd English text books for being rich.

by guest blogger, Dominic Carter
Operations Manager


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