Just as many translators do, whenever I recall my many conversations with translation clients, I think of all the teaching moments I have experienced. As any translator can tell you, we always need to educate our clients. When these clients are monolingual, and they often are, this is challenging.
There are three words or phrases that translators frequently hear which I shall share in this blog: the notion of a word, phrase or cultural concept being untranslatable, the fear of something being lost in translation and consequently, the strongly felt and sternly expressed need for a literal translation. Exploring the possible mindset that gives rise to these expressions may be illuminating.
When some clients suggest that a word or phrase is or may be untranslatable, it can be because they expect a word-to-word correspondence between two languages and that this correspondence extends to every facet of the meaning of individual words in both languages. Other times, they may assert that something is untranslatable because, realizing that there is often no word-to-word correspondence, they suspect that the target language, and therefore its speakers and culture, does not possess the concept. When this happens, I remember that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and know that it is time to engage in client education. In cynical moments, I have been tempted to ask whether such a client might question whether speakers of the target language do not experience their corporeal existence in the same way as speakers of the client’s language.
Such a state of affairs leads some clients to express their worry that something will be lost in translation. Offering them reasonable arguments about what “accuracy” means and how it is achieved, and telling them that translators translate “meaning not words” and that therefore there will be no omissions from the original message often does not work. It also does not help to suggest that they watch the Bill Murray movie with that tile.
That is often when, as if in a flash of insight to solve that problem or prevent it from happening, clients will admonish their translators to produce a literal translation. That is usually followed with the suggestion to do a “back translation” to ensure quality assurance, as if translation can be checked in the same manner as addition and subtraction.
I have one anecdote to share that exemplifies all three of these confusions on the part of a client. Fortunately for all concerned, the fellow was good-willed and teachable. He was an attorney and needed a lengthy document translated – a consent decree. We had a short conversation, he e-mailed me the document and I set out to translate it. A few days later, I e-mailed him the translation and the invoice (based on source-word count). Within five minutes, my phone rang and he was worried about what I meant by “source-word” count, not for billing reasons but because when he checked, he discovered that the original had about 15% fewer words. He was worried I had added things to the translation that were not in the original. He reminded me that he had said he wanted a literal, word-for-word translation and that therefore he expected there to be the same number of words in both documents. Because he was good-natured and open minded, we had coffee to talk about it. I showed him some simple examples of expansion and how they did not change meaning. He said he would have to sleep on it.
The next day he called me and said he was embarrassed. The night before, he picked up his daughter’s high school Spanish book and read it for a while and realized that he had not understood the nature of translation. He wisely decided to have me perform quality control by sending me to an attorney who was a member of the Puerto Rican bar so we could read the two documents side-by-side, a process that took a couple of hours, but it assured my client that nothing was amiss.
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