Translation is Hard

Have you ever had something translated, or done any translation yourself?

I’ve been thinking about translation a lot lately, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s really hard stuff.

I’ll give you a very simple example.

Two French people meet on the street. Here’s the exchange:

A: Ça va?

B: Ça va.

And let’s stop them there.

How do we translate this simple and very common snippet of conversation?

Word for word literal translation

“Ça va,” translated word for word, simply means “it goes.”

A: It goes?

B: It goes.

Now, we could translate the conversation just like that. The grammar is right for English, and the words make sense. If we saw this exchange, we wouldn’t think that anything was amiss.

But we WOULD wonder what the two people are talking about. Something goes? What is it? What could it be? How mysterious! Are they spies?

Well… no. This word for word stuff almost never works. Let’s try for something less rigid.

Something less rigid

“Ça va,” should really be translated into something like:

A: How are you?

B. Fine.

This works, but it seems a bit formal. Of course, it depends on who these people are. When we translate to English we have to think about just how well these people know each other. Are they students or lawyers, formal or relaxed?

A: How ya doing?

B: Good.

Hmm. Maybe the pendulum has swung too far away from formal. (Or maybe it hasn’t. We need to know more!)

How about this one:

A. How’s it going?

B. It’s going all right.

See, that works for lots of reasons. It sticks closely to the original meaning of the words, while also translating the sense. But… now we’ve taken the briefest of exchanges (two syllables plus two syllables) and made it into something less immediate. Let’s try again.

A. How’s it going?

B. Good.

It’s quick and it’s fairly close to the original, but we’re slightly out of grammatical tradition here. Some readers will think that person B should have said “well” instead of good. (See my take here.)

“Ça va” is perfectly acceptable grammar, so maybe we shouldn’t use “good” and set off alarms for the pedants. On the other hand, to my ear, “well” just feels different from “good.”

This is nuts, isn’t it?

Now imagine someone translating something like the Bible, where every word is considered by some of your audience as being received by God! Or less frightening, but only a little, translating Tolstoy or Sartre.

By comparison, translating tech documents must be a warm day at the lake. I mean, who cares about sticking to the meaning of each word? The tech doc just needs to get the point (or instruction) across without being confusing or ambiguous.

But that’s hard enough, and writers should keep in mind how tough it can be to get this stuff right. And managers should not let the work get translated by a random employee in the mailroom who happened to have been raised in a bilingual home. This stuff is hard.

Have anyone come across any particular translation gotchas?

2 Responses to “Translation is Hard”

  1. November 29, 2010 at 6:01 pm #

    I have a Chinese-made bicycle with an electric assist motor. The indicator light for the “low battery” condition is marked “owes the pressure”. (I interpret this to mean that I owe more pressure to the pedals, because I’m not going to get any help from the motor.) A Google search for this phrase reveals that it is a common Chinese-to-English translation for electrical devices.

    That’s amusing, but this machine-translated page for a life-support device is more on the horrifying side:

  2. November 29, 2010 at 8:43 pm #

    Wow, that is an impressive amount of incomprehensible English. Let’s hope that the actual instructions for saving a life are less horrifying!

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