Translation: a transfer between cultures

In 2013, long before AI was the talk of the town, a controversial study tried to explore which jobs were most likely to be automated / replaced by computers. One might expect that interpreters and translators would be quite high on the list (see the appendix of the actual study), but they were not: they only have a probability of 0.38 of being computerised. Does this surprise you? Hopefully not if you’ve made it to the humble site of a freelance translator. All the same, I will try to explain the work of a translator – and some of the subtleties involved – so that even a hypothetical monolingual audience can get an idea of why Google Translate won’t be replacing actual human translators any time soon.

The subtleties of language

For sure, there are occasions when machine translation is perfectly adequate: if you want to get a general idea of what a text says and you are familiar with its terminology, you will usually understand even a bad translation. Here’s an example from an article on about chauvinistic sports commentators. French passage about a cringeworthy live interview:

Patrick Montel [un commentateur] tente alors de rattraper la situation en lançant un bien pâle : « Ce qui ne tue pas te rend plus fort. » Et alors que l’athlète le laisse, Montel lance, dans un dernier éclair de lucidité : « Aïe, aïe, aïe, j’aurais préféré qu’on ne l’ait pas en direct celle-là… »

Which Google helpfully translates as:

Patrick Montel [a commentator] then attempts to remedy the situation by launching a pale well: “What does not kill you makes you stronger.” And while the athlete leaves Montel lance, in a last flash of lucidity: “Ouch, ouch, ouch, I wish it did not do that live there …”

While this doesn’t make complete sense, in context you can probably guess that “launching a pale well” stands for “says [pejorative adverb]” and that “it did not do that live there” probably refers to the live transmission. But as soon as guesswork becomes problematic – and if you are trying to sell something to your audience, you definitely don’t want to leave them guessing – it is far too risky to rely on potentially wrong or ambiguous translations.

Style, intent, audience

A human translator can do much more than checking that “fan” is translated correctly as “supporter” or “object for moving air”, depending on context. In fact, we do not just replace a word with the equivalent word in another language. Each source text has intent, style, mood that need to be transposed, ensuring that the effect on the reader remains the same. Additionally, each text is built on a whole cultural background, a foundation so to speak, that is not necessarily the same in the target language and culture at all. That is, to achieve the same effect in two different cultures, you may need to apply slightly (sometimes vastly) different strategies. This is where a translator well versed in both cultures can achieve an elegant and effective transfer.

Let me give you an example of where intent, style and target audience matters. Say you’re an American company expanding into Germany and your copy includes something like, “With our boards you can expect top performance in tricky situations!” How would you translate this into German? There is no way of knowing without context:

  1. What boards? Are we talking about a plank? An electronic component? A surf board?
  2. Who is the “you” in the text? A specialist electrician with 40 years experience will expect to be addressed differently than a trendy young surfer who’s excited to get his hands on a new piece of kit straight from the USA.
  3. Who are you and what are you marketing to your audience? Is the fact that you’re an American company an asset, or something you’d rather downplay as you vie against strong domestic competitors?

These are all aspects that will influence the way I translate that sentence. To start with I need to decide whether to use the formal “Sie”, keeping a polite distance, or the approachable “du”, which signals “we’re all buddies here”. I can choose to leave “top performance” in the English original – younger generations are likely to understand it and it will give the text a whiff of “coolness”: with your boards, the buyer is transported straight to Hawaiian shores! The electrician may not care much for surfing in the Pacific, so here I’m more likely to use the German “Spitzenleistung”.

A shared culture

Another factor that plays an important role when translating are shared cultural references. A text often aims to build a rapport with its reader, especially if you are trying to appeal or convince, as is the case with sales copy or similar. But your cultural history may not mean much to your audience in the target language, and translating it word for word may even have an alienating effect. We see this quite often in much of Western Europe’s relationship with American culture. On the one hand, it seems oh so familiar to anyone who has grown up with US sitcoms and movies. On the other hand, no amount of media consumption can replace the actual experience of going to camp over summer, worrying about prom dates, trick-or-treating as kids and countless other big and small reference points that we simply do not share. And again, when translating we have to make the conscious decision of either replacing them with an equivalent in the target culture, or else explaining them or putting them into context.

As a less dramatic example, let me mention a staff training video I translated for a British company expanding into Germany. The company is based in the Lake District and a lot of the staff testimonials mentioned the amazing drive to work in the morning, the connotations of the area, and how much they enjoy working in this setting. These employees knew that viewers would know exactly what they were talking about: almost everyone in the UK has been on a holiday to the Lake District, and even those who haven’t have a concept of what it looks like. Hearing someone wax lyrical about the Lakes immediately evokes these images; it conjures up a nice fuzzy feeling. Of course, to the prospective employee in Nordrhein-Westfalen, it likely means nothing at all and the whole concept falls flat. This may not be a big deal in a staff training video – they probably need the job – but in a sales presentation, the intended effect is crucial.

Exciting challenges

A lot of the above is what makes translation so interesting to me. Translation truly is so much more than just knowing the right words, and getting it exactly right is immensely satisfying. If there is ambiguity, I make sure to point this out and offer different translations (while explaining the difference). Personally I do believe a good translator should have lived in both their “source and target countries” to be able to truly catch and transpose the intricacies and subtleties of each language and culture. You will sometimes hear bilingual (and bi-cultural) people complain that they “don’t fully belong anywhere,” that they have no culture that is truly their own. I can certainly relate to this to some extent, but to me it is far outweighed by the ability to really understand and immerse yourself in several cultures, and the expanded world view that comes with it.