#296 from Innovative Leader Volume 6, Number 9          September 1997

Speaking Their Language:  The Art of Translation
by Jeffrey P. Golden

Mr. Golden is President and Executive Producer of Golden Communications Associates, writing and producing award-winning videos for industry and education.  He can be reached at 7818 Big Sky Drive, Suite 220, Madison, WI 53719; phone (608) 829-1905.

What are you supposed to say when management makes the decision to send a video or brochure to the overseas distributors as the solution to getting the word out to those markets?  In this age of English First isolationism, the answer may be to maintain a frozen silence.

The problem with such decisions and answers comes with the fact that, despite English becoming more of a global language, it’s simply not the home language to most of the world’s people.  And, in the face of the global marketplace, the decision to ignore native speakers of the many hundreds of languages used on the planet, may mean a much smaller slice of the global market share for your products and services.

This means that if you or your clients are serious about reaching a global audience of customers, you might have to get serious about the issue of translating your brochures, videos, web sites and multimedia materials into at least one other language.

What should you do once the decision to translate is made?

Defining Translation

It’s amazing how many different definitions of translation there are; ranging from well-researched, scholarly arguments to a variety of cosmic misunderstandings of what the process is.  Translation turns a communication in one language into a correct and understandable version of that communication in another language.  But within that definition is a sea full of hidden icebergs designed to sink the ship of your project.  I’ll now sensitize you to the nature of these icebergs.  A straight heading to an iceberg is triggered by the following kinds of quotes.

ICEBERG 1:  “All I need is a bilingual dictionary or some software.”

Here is the kind of thing that happens using this assumption.  A number of years ago, when I was living in South America, we went to a cheap restaurant with stretched pretensions of serving the American tourist trade.  The owner had an English version of his menu alongside the Spanish original.  One of his specialties was papas fritas, which in Spanish is fried potatoes (or french fries).  He obviously checked the dictionary and found that “papa” had several English words listed:  father, potato and Pope.  What we got on his menu was “fried popes.”  So much for the use of a dictionary. 

While some new software is a little better than our eager restauranteur, it is generally incapable of handling such niceties as nuance and style, and certainly capable of making fried pope category errors.  But before we laugh too hard at this guy’s attempts at English, just think of what some of our stuff could look like in another language when we crash into this particular iceberg.  Needless to say, such errors aren’t conducive to career enhancement when they’re revealed by a humiliated and angry foreign distributor of your products.

ICEBERG 2:  “If I could just find a bilingual grad student, I could get the translation done cheaply.”

Yes, you will get it done cheaply, and if you’re very, very lucky, you’ll even get it done well.  But here’s the problem.  Many people think that being bilingual is all that’s needed to be a translator.  This is not true.  Being bilingual is an important prerequisite, but translation skills are built and developed on top of one’s basic skills in both languages.  This point can be illustrated that graduate-level programs for translators usually require that the entry people already be bilingual.  The skills lie in the area of the bridges a translator has to make between the two languages.  That requires a huge range of sophisticated talents.

ICEBERG 3:  “I want it word-for-word accurate.”

Word-for-word accuracy is a deadly phrase because, given the fundamental structural differences between languages, any word-for-word translation would produce either a laughing jag or a fit of horror to the reader.  The following sign above a regional airline desk in Turkey is an example of the word-for-word approach.

If someone gets ticket by doing tricky, XYZ Airlines has rezerved the rights that there is no must to give a permation that passanger gets on the board!

This is a major step beyond fried popes, but remember that this iceberg hits us when we jump to other languages at least as often as others fracture their attempts at English.

Style versus Accuracy

The accuracy issue has serious impact on the question of style.  A well-written and creative brochure or video will convey a mood, subtly effect attitudes or try to persuade.  In other words, it has been written with a particular style to meet a specific communication need.  The question is, should we be concerned about this?  And, if we are, will it affect accuracy?  The answer to the first question is yes, particularly if you want the foreign language version to be as effective as the English. 

The question of style versus accuracy is more complex.  Sometimes a good translator will take certain liberties with the literal English in order to re-create the mood and style of the original.  A good translator will inform the client of these liberties and try to explain his or her rationale to the approach.  A smart client should allow such liberties except when they clearly violate some technical detail about the product or process.

Finding and Controlling Quality

Finding a quality translation source means scrutinizing your potential supplier with whatever effective techniques you already use to find good suppliers for other services.  Be sure that you include seeing work samples and talking to other clients of that supplier.  But there are a few more issues to keep in mind, especially regarding the question of how you maintain a degree of control over the quality of the process. 

If your material is highly technical, with vocabulary that’s distinctive to a discipline, it’s important to get assurance that the translator has at least some background or experience with that discipline.  A first-rate translator of poetry and drama may be a very bad choice for a mechanical engineering or biotechnology script.

The translation house should provide for a second-party review as a part of the service.  If you have a native speaker of that language in-house, particularly one who is familiar with the subject, that person can be useful for final script review. 

Remember, however, that there’s no such thing as the correct way to translate anything.  Language is very rich and complex, and there always will be a second, third and fiftieth opinion on how to say something.  So, as you manage the review and quality control process, try to keep the technical reviewers focused on technical vocabulary and phraseology, not on broader questions of style.  When you let yourself be drawn into style conflicts, you’ll usually get to watch the project (and possibly your blood pressure) veer out of control.

If you follow some of the advice I’ve offered, I am confident that you will reduce the risks of having your project hit the icebergs that always lurk in these waters.  These icebergs can sink your communications efforts in a sea of derisive laughter, or in a wave of offended national pride.

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