Juggling Words and Culture

A colleague of mine has a story he likes to tell about a client taking possession of a translation from English into Arabic. ‘Amazing,’ the gentleman said and then ran his forefinger along the text, resting it on each letter in succession. ‘So,’ he went on, ‘this is ‘s’, this is ‘h,’ this is ‘e,’’ and thus he continued.

Even those of us who don’t speak Arabic can be quite sure that the letters this man identified did not have the value he assigned to them; when we see some text written in an unfamiliar and indecipherable script, the one thing we can be surest of is that we have no idea how it gets its message across – but of course, if it is the work of a reputable translation provider, we may confidently hope it tells its reader what we want it to.

Sometimes we can understand enough of the target language to pick out some of the words in a translation, and they are not always what we might expect. Once, while in the Czech Republic, I went to a showing of the film Easy Rider, whose Czech title was Bezstarostná jízda, which literally means ‘Carefree Journey.’ I thought the translation rather tame, and as the film progressed my bemusement increased. The subtitler had chosen to translate the lyrics of the songs in the film, and before long a bouncing ball appeared on the screen so the audience could sing along to the soundtrack. ‘Born to be wild’ was translated as ‘Jsme děti přírody’, which means ‘We are children of nature.’ It didn’t seem quite right.

I am not a native speaker of Czech, however, so I can’t judge; and I have found in my last few years working in the translation industry that apparent non-correspondences of this type are commonplace. Sometimes there are subtleties in the target language which cannot be anticipated in the English; sometimes there are words or phrases that are best avoided.

A German word which some translators like to avoid is Führer. Unfortunately the corresponding English word, ‘leader’ is currently enjoying the apogee of its popularity, especially in business texts. One writer after another exhorts us to be leaders in some or other field of endeavour. A German translator may avoid this by employing such terms as Führungsqualitäten (‘leadership qualities’) or Leitung (‘leading’).

Conversely, there are words that English abhors but which German embraces, ‘problem’ being a good example. Many writers using English will talk about ‘issues’, ‘opportunities’, ‘challenges’ or even ‘valuable learning experiences’. In German all of these might turn out to be nothing more than ‘Probleme’.

So, translation is not always a ‘carefree journey’, but I suppose you could say that juggling words around is part of the fun; at the very least, it can be a ‘valuable learning opportunity.’

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