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By Robert Etches (Denmark)

To translate or paraphrase: Is that the question?

There’s matter in these sighs, these profound heaves,
You must translate. ‘Tis fit we understand them.
                                    Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 1

If ever there was a play that is difficult to interpret, then it’s Hamlet – and that applies to reading and discussing it in the original English, never mind in translation.

In the above quote the King is asking Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, to explain just what the deranged young Dane is up to. Shakespeare often operated with as many as three or four levels of meaning in a phrase, so the challenge involved in peeling one layer from the next, and then digesting and understanding them is no small matter: not for Queen Gertrude and not for we lesser mortals.

Neither is the ability to read, understand and then translate a text into another language.

With over 25 years of experience, I automatically move away from the source language1 and write more an English paraphrase of the text. But it’s a tricky path to tread and some customers will undoubtedly come back and ask what happened to their text! Alternatively, a newly-fledged translator might be tempted to stick more closely to the source text, producing something that sounds stilted in the target language. And this might be exactly what the customer wants! What’s good for the goose is therefore not always good for the gander.

Seen in this light it is difficult to define quality. Every day a translator somewhere is being criticised for too much or too little ‘translation’ – no wonder we ‘poor’ translators are all, more or less, on the way to being as unhinged as Hamlet!

The translator faces many challenges over and above understanding the text; here are just four:

The author has not written his text with translation in mind
The client hasn’t provided any terminology
There are no instructions about how to translate the piece
It’s (another) rush job

Linking authoring to translation

Let’s start at the beginning: authoring. The link between authoring and translation is starting to receive greater focus from the translation and localisation industry, but still remains to be prioritised by most companies.

Half of the complaints received about poor translations have nothing to do with linguistics, but content. A perfectly good English text seen from London, might not work in New York or Sydney, and will have to be really good to succeed in Berlin, Beijing and Brasilia.

It’s not just a matter of ensuring that photos in a catalogue also work and/or are acceptable in all target markets; or that there is enough space left in the layout for languages that require more space than the source language. What about the words themselves?

Is the author respecting company terminology – is there a system in place that stops her using incorrect or forbidden terminology? Is it easy for her to create new terms in a single source terminology database and request that these terms be translated ready for future translation projects?

These points may appear obvious, but if so why are so few companies following them? If terminology is not defined in the source text or, even worse, is used inconsistently, errors will be multiplied tenfold once the text is sent to translation.

Does the author have access to previously translated source texts? This allows her to recycle what has already been translated and approved, saving time and money further down the line, as this material will already be available from the company’s translation memories.

Is there any dialogue between the author and the markets that are going to use the text as part of their sales’ material? All too often oceans of hours are spent by advertising agencies, sales managers and copy writers discussing copy and layout – but how often do companies involve foreign colleagues in this process? Central themes or ideas that just won't work in some markets would thus be identified early in the process, rather than as part of the final proof, five minutes prior to going to print.

Draft layouts and texts can be made available via browser-based products so that key stakeholders can provide input earlier than is the norm today. The clever international company might even produce several source versions that are adapted for major territories, e.g. an English source for Southern Europe could be used in France, Italy, Portugal and Spain, while a slightly different English source would be approved by the South American market for use in, for example, Brazil and Chile.

Companies seldom provide approved terminology
Terminology has already been mentioned as a crucial aspect of the authoring phase, but of course it doesn’t become any less important during translation. In fact the issues are multiplied proportionally by the number of languages into which a text is to be translated. Every stakeholder in an organisation should have access to the same terminology so that everyone calls a spade a spade – in every language and country. Let your translators translate and your colleagues overseas approve terminology. They then take ownership of the terms and head office avoids a host of complaints resulting from terminology errors.

Projects are not defined by customers
After the huge amount of time, energy and, not least, money put into creating a sales brochure, there is naturally a sense of relief when the source version finally falls into place. Now it ‘just’ has to be translated.

But how should it be translated? Is the concept to be controlled centrally from HQ so that there is no fear of the key message being lost in translation? How hands-on do you want to be? Should the translators be given, within limits, freer reins? Or something in between? Who is to review texts? The local markets? How much are they allowed to alter? Can they alter content as well as linguistics, etc., etc.

Time is of the essence
Literary critics have written thousands of pages expounding theories as to why Hamlet just doesn’t get it over and done with and kill his nasty uncle in Act 2. Instead Hamlet ended up being Shakespeare's longest play.

But for the translator there’s no delay. As one of the last players in the supply chain, he is expected to belt out his work by “yesterday”. What price quality?

So, the metaphoric phrase “Don’t shoot the piano player, he’s doing the best he can,” should perhaps be updated to: “Don’t shoot the translator, he’s doing the best he can!” He can only translate what he’s been given within the time provided, passing on the message in the original source using the terminology and translation memory at hand.

Quality translation is, therefore, a multifarious monster to pin down and define. But if you’d like to help your translation team, here are five easy rules:

Don’t let your copy writer create idiomatic texts that don’t work in foreign markets
Get your colleagues in the markets to sign off on the source version. You could perhaps create several source language versions – one for Northern Europe, one for Southern Europe, one for Asia, etc.
Tell your translation provider what you want and your colleagues in the markets what they are going to get and how much and/or what they can alter

Provide terminology
Schedule translation projects more realistically – ask yourself whether you could translate the text in the time provided.

Follow these simple rules and you will not only avoid having translators sighing and heaving like Hamlet, but also receive much better translations. In fact quality translations.


Translation issues in this article

Having written this article I thought I’d check through for issues that a translator would have to bear in mind – over and above ‘just translating’ the text. My list is not exhaustive, but merely includes things that immediately drew my attention:

1. Header: echoes of Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be”. Should be easy enough, but might have to check the official translation if unsure. Can I work this reference in the same way in my language? Hmmm ... perhaps not. Wait until the end and translate the header in the light of the entire text.

2. Quote from Hamlet. Need to find the official translation. If translating into Danish there will be extra focus on this. Quote no doubt selected for the use of translate and understand as these form the point of departure for the entire discussion. Will be interesting to see whether these two words survived in the official translation. May have to change if they didn’t!

3. Gertrude, Hamlet, mother: hmmm … this is a text about translation so the author is no doubt making a veiled reference to mother tongue translators here. What other traps lie ahead!

4. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander – that’s the idiom, but it’s twisted here (not always good ...). What idiomatic phrase can I use in my language to capture this meaning? Will I have to paraphrase and take a completely new angle? What will the author say? Think he’ll be OK with this approach as he is breaking grammatical rules like mad in this paragraph, starting sentences with “But” and “And”. Wonder if he will do that again? Once is OK, twice is just sloppy!

5. Oceans of hours – bit poetic/over the top! Most probably playing with onomatopoeia and alliteration. Should I follow him or just translate as "a lot of time"?

6. Call a spade a spade: tricky. There are two meanings here: keep language simple is the first, but the author is using it about consistency of translation throughout an organisation. Can I mirror these ideas in my language?

7. Lost in translation – is he making a veiled reference to the film Lost in Translation? Of course he is! Starts by saying Shakespeare has four layers of meaning in some phrases, so he's trying to squeeze in as many layers of his own as possible. But obviously no Shakespeare ;-)

8. Who is to review the texts? Why didn’t he write revise or proof? OK, again, this is a text about translation so he must be referring to EU standard 15038 that has a specific definition of review. Had better check this.

9. Players – why players and not stakeholders? Reference to the ‘players’ in Act 3 of Hamlet? Yes indeed. He’s just used ‘play’ at the end of the previous paragraph. On the other hand, no-one is going to get this reference anyway: stakeholders will do!

10. Another phrase: “Don’t shoot the piano player." Know what he means (Don’t shoot the messenger), but this is a touch sexier. What to do in my language?! Wonder where the piano thing originates: Will just check Wikipedia. Aaah!” The Wild West. Of course! Hmmm … will translate as “Don’t shoot the messenger” as that is actually a better metaphor for translators and fits in better with Hamlet– always messengers appearing in Shakespearean plays and no piano players in Wild West saloons!

11. Multifarious monster – OK, know his style now. Pure alliteration here, so I can definitely move away from the text. No need for monsters in my version!



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