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Various translating themes that I enjoy writing about... just scroll down to read more...




Why don’t English-speakers just say what they mean?

This was the recent topic of conversation among the members of a German translator’s forum.

It all started when someone posted a FT article suggesting that native British-English speakers maybe need to get more directly to the point – with the tagline “Beating about the bush with idioms when it comes to making your meaning clear”.

  • “I totally agree, how can a non-native ever keep up?”
  • “It’s almost a kind of specialist language, like legalese or medical jargon”
  • “They should speak more simply to non-native speakers”
  • “even the various worldwide regions sometimes do not understand each other, look at the differences in US and UK-English”

These comments reflect the initial knee jerk reaction of “OH YES”. Later some comments defending the British way of saying things, and towards the end, a balanced weighing up of both sides of the argument.


So why is everyone getting so worked up? Language is a living thing, it evolves, matures and changes through use – and it could be that English evolves at more of a pace than German does. The influence of American usage could have quite a lot to do with this – particularly so in the case of conferences, business meetings and training courses, which each create their own sort of “in-speak”.

Different languages have different ways of being “polite”, different “conventional” ways of saying things, and the individual words themselves don’t necessarily have their own meaning. Take for example the chirpy sign-off of a German letter: “Ihr” I see constantly. That translates as “Your”. Not the correct translation in context, of course, but “Yours” on its own sounds too abrupt in English. So, acceptable alternatives could be “Yours faithfully”, “Yours sincerely” (there are rules for which to use, and those who have learned the language as translators probably know how to use them properly more than most native British speakers). Or you could use “Yours truly”, “Best regards”, “Kind regards”, or just “Regards.” And that’s before we even get anywhere near the purely colloquial sign-offs which can be just as acceptable, such as “Cheers”, “All the best”, “See you.” One word, at least 10 possible translations, each of which is properly polite in the right context, but inappropriate in the wrong context. Which to use?


The mostly learned and certified German translators who were commenting on the original article undoubtedly have a very good technical grasp of English. But when this technical grasp has been acquired several years ago, decades even, how immersed [link to previous blog] are these translators in the current use of the language? I lived in Germany for 22 years and can totally understand the issue, seeing it from both sides. I would tell my very British business partner, “I need a quick chat with you now”, whereas he would ask me the tricky sense quoted in the article “You don’t have time for a quick chat, do you?”. Both are intended to mean the same thing whereas I sound abrupt to him and he sounds effusive to me. “Make it less wordy,” I say when he is helping me to draft a business letter to a customer for me to translate and send in German, meaning “I can’t say that in German, it sounds too evasive, even a bit sneaky.” But a British business letter is written in that way because it is the conventional and polite way to phrase it. The German way would seem rude to them, I mean us (I sometimes forget that I am English).


Yes of course, the English rule book could be ripped up and the language made more simple for non-native speakers to understand. But by the same token, shouldn’t German “put the words in the right order” from the English-speaker’s point of view? The fact is that either “solution” would detract from the beauty and flow of the language, something that many of the translator’s group were lamenting in the end too. After all, without these sorts of challenges, how much fun would translating be?



Machine versus human translation and on into the future

MT, machine translation which, since the launch of the German-based MT tool called DeepL in August 2017, cannot be brushed aside as lightly as Google Translate and friends were in many quarters. DeepL describes itself as a “deep learning company that develops AI systems for languages”. The company was founded in 2007 as Linguee which introduced the first internet search engine for translations. This search engine/web dictionary was developed over a period of 10 years with the help of an army of correctors, I being one of them. Linguee uses specialised webcrawlers to search the Internet for appropriate bilingual texts and divides these into parallel sentences. These then undergo automatic quality evaluation by a human-trained machine-learning algorithm that assesses the quality of translation. Users can also rate translations manually in DeepL, for instance, by selecting another word from a drop-down box within the translation on offer, thus continuously training the machine learning system. This means for instance that a seemingly simple but actually quite complex phrase like “I cannot be bothered” or “I don’t care” gets a pretty accurate counterpart in the various languages that DeepL covers. And our earlier-mentioned phrase “um den heißen Brei reden“ gives us “to beat about the bush”. 


Interestingly enough, the concept behind Linguee was conceived in 2007 by none other than a former Google employee Dr. Gereon Frahling... just a thought bubble.


All this results in a MT tool which, certainly from the professional translator’s viewpoint, is usually vastly superior to its competition and causes consternation to many translators. As the translation experts at the BDÜ – the professional association of interpreters and translators in Germany – point out in an insightful article, “human parity” is not there though. Yet. Most translators would probably concur that DeepL’s MT, whilst translating basic texts well, is much less able to cope with anything with a creative element or slightly more complicated prose. Furthermore, MT is no match for humans when it comes to consistently and effectively localising, nor can it even dream of transcreating content.


So, say experts, that is where we translators need to take up the slack. These take the position that translators need to adapt to MT, not resist it. Yes, it has its uses. MT fits very well into companies’ digitisation processes, for instance. The experts go on to elucidate that human translators can fill in the gaps and adopt new business models, if they embrace the times and they themselves digitise. 


Many areas such as IT and app-based content are already being taken care of by MT and are out of translators’ hands. High-end texts are the future, as well as superior customer service and organisation of translating needs within companies that we are linked to. Translators need to adapt to MT by offering what MT cannot do. That is, get more training and qualifications in consultation, digitisation and specialisation, while displaying absolute transparency as well as strict adherence to standards, translation memories and in-house style guides. Focus on soft skills – be there for customers, at all times and on all media, be prepared to embrace more than translation, offering localisation, transcreation and even text creation if needs be.


So, how about the translator’s equivalent of the couch to 5k? It’s a new decade and the translator’s 2020 vision needs to be: out with the old, in with the new. As with all technological advances, the new technology is there to take over the drudge work. The professional translator has the skills, knowledge and experience to stay ahead of the machine competition at all times. But not if they sit back and do nothing…




Quirky immersion barriers in my small pocket of the world


Home for me for the past six years has been a lovely small town called Benissa in the Valencian Community, Spain. It is a solid, well-off Spanish town, a few kilometres inland, so somewhat less touristy than its neighbours. As a result, it has a larger proportion of locals than is found in other towns in the area.


I am British. One amongst more than 240,000 British immigrants living in Spain. Before coming here, I lived in Berlin, Germany for 22 years, studied and got my Master’s there, married there, worked there and had two children. All of us spoke German and lived a thoroughly German life. I now work as a German to English translator from our little house in the Spanish countryside.


Naturally, my visitors expect me to be fluently translating from or into Spanish as well and that my Spanish will be at least as good as my German. After all, I’ve been living here for seven years now. Sadly, I have to admit – somewhat red-faced – that my Spanish has in fact got worse since I came here. I took Spanish at school and also studied it while living in Germany so I do have a very solid basis. My visitors don’t get it. After all, I’m a linguist. I was talking German fluently after much less time, and indeed had a distinct German accent when I spoke English when I was back in the UK. So why the problem with Spanish? Not laziness or lack of inclination, I assure you, but there is a very interesting reason. But how to begin to explain the complications I faced here in Benissa when trying to learn the language?


Immersion is the key. But what is immersion? Being dunked in water? In a way, yes.


Language immersion is when the learner is surrounded by the target language, literally swimming in it. It is a commonly-known teaching method.


A variety of factors affect language immersion both inside and outside the classroom, including the amount of target language contact. A language learner needs to broadly engage in local communicative practices, absorb their situation and peripheral participants to gain awareness of the target language.


Many people may not know that there are in fact 5 official and 3 minority   languages recognised in Spain that are spoken in the various autonomous communities.


So, I find myself in Benissa. A Valencian town, situated at the heart of the autonomous community of Valencia which is fiercely proud of its own language, Valencian. It is a living language, spoken by all the locals. It is the official language used in all state schools, clubs, offices (particularly public sector offices), churches, etc. Not Castilian – the Spanish learnt by foreigners. It has only a few similarities to Castilian and is more like Catalan, itself considered by some philologists as a dialect of Occitan language (which evolved in the French-Spanish border region from spoken Latin after the fall of the Roman Empire) – giving it its Latin feel. An example of the differences would be for “good morning” (day) Castilian Spanish: “Buenos días”; Valencian “bon dia”; French: “bonjour”.


Foreign residents and visitors in this area hear, see and experience mostly Valencian rather than Castilian Spanish, so do not benefit from that “absorb their situation and peripheral participants” aspect of immersion. This makes it much more problematic to understand what is going on around them, despite having a good grasp of Castilian Spanish.


This is one of two main barriers to effective learning of Castilian Spanish. As for Valencian, I can now understand a bit – I learned French in school – but if you do not live in a Valencian family, or are in a state job (proficiency in Valencian is a pre-requisite), in a state school (as my German-Spanish-English-Valencian-speaking children are), it is very difficult for an outsider to get enough access to it to effectively pick up this language. And when you do hear some Castilian Spanish, it is often intermingled with Valencian, making it just as difficult to pick that up effectively.


The other, more unique barrier to effective language learning round here is that there is an extremely high proportion of foreign nationals, mostly retired, living, either permanently or semi-permanently  in the surrounding areas – both towards the coast and in the prettier rural spots inland. Not only British, but also many German, Dutch, Belgian, Swiss, Austrian, French, Scandinavian and Russian people all live on and love the whole length of the Costa Blanca. A side effect of this is to “dilute” both Castilian Spanish and Valancian. Unlike in state-run offices, where the Valencian language is strenuously protected, when ordering in many bars, shops, printers, garages, banks - the chances of encountering Valencian are often pretty low, and even Castilian Spanish is not universally used.


Yes, this means that language immersion and thus acquisition does not often happen effectively over here. An obvious solution would be to take a state-run Valancian language course. But this does not necessarily make it any easier to integrate into the community – particularly the further out of the main town you live. Unless you have local family here, or marry into one, you do not get to effectively practise the language outside the classroom. Couple that with the fact that there are only 2 million speakers of Valencian in the world, compared to 45 million who speak Castilian Spanish and 437 million who speak a form of Castilian Spanish globally, there is arguably not much incentive to actively acquire the language.




Various translation forms

Translation is the process of converting content from one language directly into another, focussing on the words used in a chunk of content and translating these into the closest equivalent in another language. Nowadays, there is essentially a translation continuum, with pure machine translation and pure human translation at either end of the spectrum. This opens up a particularly interesting topic in itself and is the subject of my next theme: machine versus human translation.


Adaptation recognises that sometimes a literal translation of the words in the text is not sufficient to convey the idiom – a group of words which have a different meaning, when used together, beyond the meaning of the component words. When it very important to extract the meaning behind the words in a particular situation according to the cultural context, such as more or less directly translatable wordplay (for German (um den heißen Brei reden) at least) such as “beating about the bush” and not “talking around the hot broth” this requires adaptation. It is not sufficient to simply directly translate the text; it needs to be manipulated to some extent to put across an equivalent message.


Localisation goes a step even further than translation or adaptation, taking into account the audience and their cultural expectations. Localisation has a much broader, conceptual approach which starts, for example, by looking at the themes and topics of a brand’s culture and ensuring that every aspect is adapted to the target market. My proofreader and I argue every time about car versus automobile for the US market. A Christmas card, which may be seemingly harmless, has more pitfalls for the unwary translator than you would ever believe possible for such a message of joy and peace on earth! Even similar cultures “divided by a common language” such as Britain and the USA can have significant, yet imperceptible to the uninitiated, cultural differences. Take the simple and innocuous-sounding greeting “Merry Christmas” and “Seasons Greetings” – yet in some cultures, the well-meaning corporate greetings card ignores the sensitivities of customers and partners of different or no faith at their peril. A well-meaning but ill-thought-out message of goodwill has the potential to backfire dramatically – even at the permanent expense of long-term profitable business relationships. Thorough localisation may, for instance, also save you from inadvertently contravening advertising laws. It also takes more subtle nuances into account, above all enabling content to connect with audiences more effectively and naturally, flowingly and comfortably: embracing spelling, expressions, time and date formats, colour schemes right up to the imagery in a brochure.


Where localisation moves beyond the language and addresses different cultures, transcreation takes a further step towards creative freedom to ensure your marketing messages are heard the way they are intended. This is becoming increasingly important in our brand-driven world. A brand message usually uses a rich mix of language, storytelling and visual content and thus has a very specific impact on audiences. Sometimes it is impossible to translate all of these subtle nuances directly. Wordplay, for example, hardly ever works in translation. It invariably loses not only its ‘wow-factor’, but indeed its meaning as soon as a slogan steps away from its native language. It is vital, however, to prompt the same or at least similar emotional responses from audiences all over the world.


Transcreation focusses on what is aimed for, and finds the best way to recreate that response in another language and culture. This will often lead to a completely different slogan or strap line, but one that has a comparable impact on an audience. A good example of this was something my two offspring pointed out to me, with the glee that only teenage adolescent boys could muster up: Mitsubishi launched its rover vehicle the “Pajero 4WD” over here in Spain, where we live, completely overlooking the fact that colloquially, the word “pajero” means something akin to “jerk” in Spanish. The car´s name has since been changed to Mitsubishi “Montero” in Spain which, although having no direct meaning, at least has a mountainy kind of ring to it, and is a much more acceptably named vehicle to be dropped off from at the school gates! And when Kentucky Fried Chicken opened their first store in China, it did not take long before they discovered their slogan, “finger lickin’ good” translated into “eat your fingers off.”

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