It is but a shade of its former self: “Close, but no cigar” translation pitfalls

Home/Publications/CIDM eNews/CIDM eNews 04.16/It is but a shade of its former self: “Close, but no cigar” translation pitfalls

Ulla de Stricker, de Stricker Associates

All over the world, translators labor to make commerce possible and to assist people to use products produced in parts of the world not using their own language.  We expect global companies to maintain websites in multiple languages and to localize software.  Europeans think it’s totally normal for a bottle of shampoo to feature the list of ingredients in four languages because some markets are so small that it makes no sense to serve them individually (that’s why the shipments for Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark have those identical multilingual labels).

We make a big deal of the achievement when a literary work has been masterfully rendered into other languages, and we intuit that the translators must be exquisitely sensitive to the minutest nuance of meaning in the languages in question.  Similarly, the scientific accuracy of the language in material safety data sheets is a matter of some consequence.  In many cases, however, it’s much less dire if a translation is less than perfect – as we have no doubt all noticed when perusing furniture assembly diagrams or camera user manuals.

In that part of the world of translations, there’s a special area full of pitfalls between the elegantly perfect and the charmingly (and obviously) imperfect.  We have no trouble realizing that the intended word was “dowel” rather than “stick” or “rod”, and we instinctively supply the “al” suffix if the word “historic” is used incorrectly … but would we see through the mistake if the translator put “cooperation” rather than “collaboration” because those two – similar, but not identical – concepts are the same word in the original language?  Those pitfalls are produced when apparent similarities between words and phrases in different languages or within a language mislead the writer.

Did you puzzle over the title of this piece and think, “oh, she means shadow, not shade”?  Would you get suspicious if you read in a news story that “police ransacked the suspect’s home”?  What would you think if you came across a mention that “there was such a raucous down the hall”?  (The writers meant “combed through” and “ruckus” respectively.  Of course it’s tempting to translate the original Danish word “ransage” as “ransack” … but “ransage” means “search thoroughly”, not “destroy”.)

The concept of “false friends” is well known to generate much merriment.  The tales of how some Spanish words are perfectly ordinary in one South American country but are deeply offensive in another are the subjects of amusement.  Brand names are a special category of examples what can happen when no one double checks … just Google “unfortunate product names” and you’ll be in for some seriously cringe-inducing chuckles!

Less entertaining, but certainly confusing, are the cases when direct (sometimes called word-for-word) translations make the meaning ambiguous or puzzling:  The directly translated “I speak German too” could mean “Like you, I speak German” or “In addition to French, I speak German”.  A directly translated statement such as “the duty free goods must *first* be opened when you have completed the trip” reflects the fact that the word “first”, as used in that position in the original language, conveys the concept of “not until”.  Similarly, the correct placement of the words “only” and “also” in English (directly in front of the word to which they pertain) eludes quite a few translators when they copy the word order of the original language.

When writers export linguistic principles from their own language into another, we generally understand the intent:  We mentally separate incorrectly joined words such as “librarybook” or “galaperformance”, and we understand how long “two and a half hour” is.  (That said, such blemishes – however minor – may distract the reader from the essence of what is being communicated.)

We extend sympathy to those who are writing in a language other than their own.  Yet we could all contribute to better communication by exercising care.  Before sending any text to readers in another linguistic community, it couldn’t hurt to ask ourselves questions like these:  Have I used jargon or idioms that could be unfamiliar to readers?  Could I use a different phrase less likely to cause confusion?  Is there a universal term for the item instead of one unique to a region (as in the typical pop/soda and sofa/couch examples)?  Does the expression I chose really mean what I think it means?

Postscript – if my readers whose first language is not English will permit me a tiny appeal:  It’s a courtesy to readers not to take the easy way out.  I’m referring to the habit of sprinkling English-language expressions into text in other languages without good reason.  We Danes may choose for ourselves what to think when a fellow Dane with a newly minted MBA from Harvard continues, once back in Copenhagen, to use the expressions he or she learned during the university program.  In cases where there really is no accurate word in the vernacular, we don’t bat an eyelash when the English term is used; that’s how “weekend” became an international item of vocabulary.  However, when there is a perfectly good expression in the native language, the habit achieves the opposite of the possibly intended effect:  Rather than making the writer sound cool or cosmopolitan, it creates an impression of laziness.  It gets worse.  When the writers misunderstand the English-language expressions or just fail to look them up, the result is most definitely not what was desired:  I almost choked on my morning coffee when reading in a Danish newspaper article that an activity was a “peace of cake” to perform.  Hm, a zen ambiance with chocolate icing?  The calm you experience when ingesting baked goods?  You tell me!

OK – time to get back to work.  I know how to translate into idiomatic English the Danish expression “oh, so that’s where the dog is buried!” … but what, pray tell, do I do for the metal swivel gizmo that attaches a glass shower door to a wall or to a fixed piece of glass and allows a swing of 180 degrees?

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