#296 from Innovative
Leader Volume 6, Number 9
Their Language: The
Art of Translation
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?
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.
“All I need is a bilingual dictionary or some
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.
“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
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.
“I want it word-for-word accurate.”
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.