Author: El profe

Feeling Judged? No Worries!

Most translators and interpreters can probably relate to those situations in which their work is judged by a layperson who blatantly labels it as a “wrong translation.” Everyone seems to have an opinion about everything these days, wouldn’t you agree? We have become a society of too many “apprentices” but not enough “masters.”

Obviously, some professions are more vulnerable than others. Let’s face it, how many mortals are at least slightly qualified to question the work of an anesthesiologist before a brain surgery? Not many, right? That’s what I thought.

But when it comes to humanities, and especially languages, almost everyone feels entitled to make a comment because… “hey, I spent a high school semester in Poland, so my Polish is flawless” or “my girlfriend is Mexican, so I’m almost fluent in Spanish” and similar ignorant remarks.

If you are a translator, you’ve been there. And if you are studying to become a translator, get ready because you’ll be there some day. But don’t feel bad about it. All you need to do is ignore it.

A lot of people who speak — or believe they speak — another language are usually quick to look at a translation and have an opinion about it. They seem to forget what professionals always say: “speaking another language does not qualify anybody as a translator or interpreter.”

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Michael Phelps. 2016 Olympics. Photo from Wikipedia.

Just think for a moment… of all the people in the world who can swim, how many of them can swim well? Then, among those good ones, how many could be competitive swimmers? And among those even fewer, how many make it to the Olympic games? Now, among those at the Olympics, how many make it to the finals? And how many are as good as Michael Phelps? I’m sure you get the picture by now. Trained translators and interpreters belong in the level of the competitive swimmers and above. But that bilingual person or staff member we all know is merely someone who can probably swim well enough not to drown after drinking two beers before entering the pool. In other words, don’t trust him/her with a professional translation.

Even translators and interpreters are partly guilty of this “sin” as well. We sometimes find ourselves, whether consciously or not, judging other translations in the real world. While it is true that professionals in the same field are qualified to have an informed opinion, there may be other circumstances unbeknownst to us that may have led to that particular translation we are critiquing. And such circumstances may have gone beyond the control of the person who translated the text.

There are many factors that sometimes force translators to do something other than following their guts. Here are some of the most common ones:

client’s requirements — More often than not, clients have a whole set of rules and requirements that influence the translator’s decision. These requirements may not necessarily respond to language specifications but other reasons or fields such as marketing, politics, economics, political correctness, etc. As a result, translators are expected to use a different choice than they would from a linguistic standpoint. They are simply using what is required and there’s not much they can do about that. Some clients are more receptive or flexible and may accept suggestions from the translator. But not all of them do or have the power and/or knowledge to do so.

required terminology, glossary, etc. — Clients and translation agencies frequently have glossaries and specific terms that need to be used to comply with style guides, clients’ requirements, consistency, previous translations and so on and so forth. This usually forces translators to use such terms instead of any others they may prefer, even if the required choices are not necessarily the best ones.

consistency with previous translations — Many times, translators are required to keep consistent with other past translations about the same subject. This consistency may go further than just the terminology, as it may imply other specifications such as style, tone, degree of formality/informality, etc. One simple example of this is the name of organizations, entities, agencies, and the like. Ever been translating something and needed to research the name of a national or global organization? When you find it, you realize it’s not the best translation but you need to use it because that’s the coined term by which it is already publicly known. This is a common phenomenon and, sadly, it does not only affect organization and program names. But once something is widely known by one name/term, translators may need to stick to what has been used in the past for the sake of consistency and communication.

medium — The medium can also condition the tone, style, word choices and other aspects of a translation. In print or online, where the layout can affect the length of the text, the translation must sometimes adapt to the space requirements and this obviously determines the word choices and the syntax which may take more space in some languages than in others. In radio advertising, every second matters and even syllables are counted, which calls for a more concise style than it would normally be used.

In short, there could be numerous reasons for a translation to be one way or another. And it’s not necessarily the translator’s fault. However, most people tend to blame the translator in the first place and not much can be done about it.

We could try to educate people about this but it might seem like we are making excuses for ourselves or our colleagues. So the best thing is to simply ignore it. After all, humans have been wrongly blaming translators for centuries. Take the Roman empire, for instance, they are the ones to thank for the famous “translators, traitors” phrase as well as the execution of more translators than any other civilization in history.

But the best we can do is strive to be better day after day, work hard to provide the best service/product and ignore what others think. People are always going to be judged by others. Think of movie stars. They don’t get to explain or even care to explain their work in some cases. Of course, they make millions and that probably buys their silence, ha! So, rather than give explanations, perhaps we should just ask for a raise.

Good luck with it.

Is Faithfulness Overrated?

No matter how faithful to the original a translation could be, some experts consider that translations are always an improved version of such original.

This is one of the aspects of what is known as translational improvement which could be understood in different ways. At a superficial level, a translation improves the original text by merely enabling it to reach an audience it would otherwise fail to reach. At deeper levels, translations may improve the original text on the basis of ethical, theoretical, cultural, philosophical and/or other considerations.

But let’s focus on a more practical side of this matter!

Now, two questions that may come to mind.

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The Importance of Accuracy

As defined by pretty much any dictionary, accuracy is nothing but the absence of errors.

But, as translators and interpreters, we all know that you can sometimes be correct without being necessarily accurate. This inevitably calls for a more detailed definition that considers accuracy as conformity to truth, models and standards.

If you are among those who lean more towards synonyms than definitions, think of the first meaning as correctness and the second one as exactness.

And if you happen to like playing around with words, you know that you can be correct without necessarily being exact. Politicians do it all the time! However, you cannot be exact without being correct… unless you are exactly incorrect, ha!

Is this getting too philosophical? I hope not because this is a blog, not a treatise.

Accuracy is crucial in most professions today. In the medical field, for instance, it can have life or death repercussions. The same applies to any scientific, technical and technological fields, where accuracy is the basis for quality, efficiency, productivity and/or efficacy.

But accuracy is also important in other industries — imagine a cake made with an inaccurate recipe! And translation is not an exception. An accurate translation conveys the right message in the right way. Obviously, as language is essentially cultural and is not an exact science, establishing the level of accuracy can be harder. And even what can be deemed accurate in one situation may not be so in others.

Because that would require a lot more time and space than a blog allows for, let’s instead see some examples in which inaccurate translations have had dramatic effects in human history.

Case No.1

When in the late 1870’s, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli was studying Mars, he spotted what seemed to be channels. Then, the Italian word canali was mistranslated as canals instead of channels, leading many to believe there was intelligent life on the planet. This was also one of the sparks that prompted the subsequent boom in science fiction.

Case No. 2

In the 1830s, there were moments of tension in the diplomatic relations between France and the United States when a secretary mistranslated the French word demander in a message sent to the White House and told the President about the French government’s demands instead of their requests. Luckily, everything was clarified soon enough.

Case No. 3

When in the 1980’s a teenager suffering a brain hemorrhage was admitted in a Florida hospital, his family thought he had food poisoning and explained in Spanish to a bilingual staff member that he was intoxicado. The term was mistranslated as intoxicated and he was admitted and treated as a case of overdose. The delay in the actual treatment resulted in a young man becoming quadriplegic and a malpractice lawsuit.

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Michelangelo’s Moses. Photo from Wikipedia

Case No. 4

St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators, himself made a mistake when translating the Old Testament that resulted in Moses being depicted or described with horns for quite a good time until the error was corrected. The original text used the Hebrew word qaran (radiance) to describe Moses’ head but the translator understood it literally. The primary meaning of the word is in fact horns but, figuratively, its meaning refers to the rays of light or radiance associated with God, which could be seen irradiating from behind Moses’ head as he came down from Mount Sinai. St. Jerome’s Latin version then became the source for further translations that also carried the mistake. And even paintings and sculptures portrayed a horned Moses for a long time after that. So, it wasn’t Michelangelo’s fault after all, ha!

There are many more famous examples of mistranslations, such as a statement by President Carter during visit to Poland that ended up with sexual connotation or a metaphoric comment by Nikita Khrushchev that ended up sounding more threatening than it really was during the cold war years. I am sure you can read about them in multiple sources.

Now, while some of these have entered the history books, we all know there are many other cases that do not reach that level of popularity but can dramatically hurt the reputation of professionals in our field.

Sadly enough, many of these inaccuracies go unnoticed for some time. But that does not mean they disappear. They are still there and they could have negative consequences one day.

So, before we submit our next translation, let’s take some time to review it again… one last round of proofreading. Let’s not do it for ourselves. Let’s not do it for the client. Let’s do it for our colleagues! I know I will!

Will you?








Translators vs. Interpreters

Much has been said about this subject. Several websites, blogs, agencies, etc. have expressed their definitions, explanations and lists of similarities and differences.

Some opinions sound very well founded, clearly coming from professionals in the field. Others seem to have been researched and written by an outsider who needed to submit something to the editor by the end of the day.

And in true human fashion, the general public either does not care or refuses to even know the basic difference:

  • interpreters = oral
  • translators = written

Now, why are there two different names for the profession? After all, if an engineer writes, draws or speaks, the job title is still “engineer”. And the same applies to doctors, plumbers, carpenters, teachers, bank robbers, you name it.

Well, simply put, the main reason is that they are in fact two different professions with different sets of skills, different settings or work environments, different rates, and often performed by different people. Not every translator does interpreting and not every interpreter translates written words. Sometimes, it’s a matter of preference, but it can also be due to their education, skills, place of employment, etc.

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I Love Rock and Roll

I know some of you may remember this popular Joan Jett’s hit. Some others may not know it and probably only half of those will look it up.

On the other hand, many of you may share this feeling about rock music and many others will totally disagree because you prefer other genres, less prone to virtuosity and leaning more to the fun of dancing and/or simple lyrics. No offense! But you can’t deny that some pop music lyrics are a bit on the silly side.

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Women In Translation Month

Good ideas often come from the combination of two or more good components. And WOMEN IN TRANSLATION MONTH is not an exception.

If you don’t know what it’s all about, it’s because it’s a relatively new thing. Founded by Israeli scientist, Meytal Radzinski, it intends to make a difference in the gender imbalance when it comes to translated authors.

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