I find translating for businesses to be extremely rewarding – I have the opportunity to help my clients reach new markets for their services. But it’s also very challenging work.
“Lost in Translation” is not just a movie. It’s a problem that translators regularly face. Some things just don’t make sense when you simply substitute a word in one language for its counterpart word in the source text.
Here are the four biggest obstacles I’ve faced in translation, and how I overcame them.
One – Idioms
An idiom is a common expression in a language that doesn’t literally mean what the words say. Think of “time flies” or “speaking off the cuff.” What I typically try to do in my translations is to understand what the author is trying to express in his/her own language – the basic, underlying meaning – and then substitute an English-language expression that conveys the same underlying concept. If a German says Daumen drücken!, it would not make sense to an English-speaker if I simply translated it to Thumbs pressed! The phrase is a wish for luck. In English, we might say Fingers crossed! to wish someone luck, so I would use that phrase in my translation, instead.
Two – Quotations
If your source text references a quote by someone globally or historically famous, chances are the quote already exists in your target language—it’s just a matter of doing an online search to find the most common way it’s written. Sometimes, I am asked to translate a quotation from a report or press release that I know was originally published in English. In those cases, I don’t try to translate the quote back to English, but I search for the original text and use that, instead.
Three – Technical or business terms
Similar to quotes from press releases I know were published in English, sometimes I am asked to translate text about common technical or business terms or methods that I know exist as common terms or methods in English. For example, when translating for a business coach who offers consulting on internal communications for businesses, I may need to translate information about the “Four-Ears Model” of communication. Because information about this communication model exists in English, I can use it to confirm that my translation precisely matches the terms and phrases commonly used and recognized.
Four – Words with multiple meanings
Another problem in translation is the fact that many words can have multiple meanings – both in English and in the source language. For example, I frequently have to translate the German word weiter into English. The most common English word option for weiter is further. However, it can also mean farther or again, depending on context. Here is where it is important for the translator to be an expert in the language into which they are translating the text. A translator needs to have a broad vocabulary in their native tongue, in order to know exactly which word should be selected for the translation. I also like to offer my client a few alternatives to words that have multiple nuances, so I can work with them to decide which English word comes closest to their original meaning.
If you’re a translator, what types of obstacles have you run into with your translations? How did you overcome them? Visit me on Facebook and let me know.
Bernadette Geyer provides writing, copy editing, and translation services for small businesses, entrepreneurs, and writers. She also leads online workshops on a variety of topics for small businesses and writers. Geyer likes being a small fish in a big pond, and enjoys helping others move to bigger ponds themselves. Subscribe to her monthly news from the big pond if you’re interested in professional growth.
Geyer’s No Time Guide series of online guides for small businesses offers simple, jargon-free guides to small business owners and nonprofits who want to grow, but don’t have a lot of time.