Translation Tips and Pitfalls

Example 1: “Every translator has their own style”

It has become almost standard usage in English to use the forms “they”, “their”, “themselves” etc in place of “he/she”, “his/her” or “himself/herself ”. So we find sentences like “The individual translator should monitor their own business”, “The driver is responsible for the safety of their passengers”, or even “You can place your baby on their back to avoid harming themself ”. The “correctness” of this construction can be debated endlessly and many speakers of English find it awkward and ungrammatical. Nevertheless, it is used in many of the texts we are asked to translate.

We find as a result that translators often replicate this plural form “they” unnecessarily. After all, in some Asian and Polynesian languages, no distinction is made between “he” and “she”. For example, “ia” in Maori, Samoan, Tongan, Cook Islands Maori etc., “siya” in Tagalog, “dia” in Indonesian. These are all neutral pronouns that do not specify the gender of the person referred to. So when you see “they”, “their”, “them” etc in English, STOP and ask yourself if it is referring to one person or several, and then translate accordingly.

Example 2: “A translator is a person who converts one language into another”

Definitions of this type are sometimes used in informational texts of the sort we are asked to translate. In some languages it may be the case that the translation of the word being defined is the same as the explanation. For instance, “A pedestrian is someone who walks along the road” might be translated as “A person who walks is a person who walks”. In a case like this, it would be preferable to put the English word in quote marks followed by the explanation in the target language. Another option would be to drop such a sentence altogether. This may be quite justifiable depending on the nature and purpose of the text, but should always be pointed out in your translation – otherwise you might get a note from the editor/reviser or even a puzzled customer reminding you that you have missed a sentence out!

Example 3: “Please send any queries to the Ministry of Translation”

The question here is “To translate or not to translate?” First, consider whether the words “Ministry of Translation” are going to appear on the actual envelope posted to this organisation and which form will be able to be used by the postal system in the country it will be sent to. In New Zealand for example, many government departments have bilingual names and the postal system should be expected to be able to handle either the words “Ministry of Translation” or its Mäori equivalent “Te Manatü Whakamäori”. However, translating this for use in New Zealand as “Te Matagaluega Fakamatalaupu” in Samoan or “Übersetzungsministerium” in German may cause a delay in the mail delivery, if it arrives at all! The solution we suggest is that the first time the departmental name appears in the text, you provide a descriptive or explanatory translation in brackets. You can then continue to use either the English words or your translation throughout the text, depending on what best suits the individual style or typography of your language. Having now explained to the reader what the words mean, it becomes much more reasonable to simply leave the English words as they are for the postal address details.

The question of how you actually translate such proper names or titles could take several pages to examine. But as a general rule, if the text is to be used in New Zealand and there is a commonly used translation of the organisation available, then that can be used throughout the text, as long as the English equivalent has been indicated at some stage, preferably the first time it appears.

Where the title refers to an overseas organisation with no accepted translation or local equivalent in the target language, appears only once or twice, and has general information value, rather than being used for an address, it should generally be translated into the target language. For instance, “This guideline has been approved by the Australian Electrical Normalisation Committee”. The primary consideration here is to make it clear to the reader in his or her language what the organisation referred to is.

In making these sorts of decisions in your translation, it may be useful to imagine what effect it would have on the reader if the name of the organisation was given in a totally different script e.g. “Please send any queries to ΡΦχωπϊ”. Is this going to be of use to the reader or not? If those are the actual words that need to appear on the envelope in the destination country or refer to an entry in the phone book(e.g. Refer to “Ministry of Translation” in the Yellow Pages), then the answer is yes. If the reader is simply being told where to enquire (e.g. Please enquire at your local branch of the Ministry of Translation office) then the answer is no.

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