Things a translator does that you might not be aware of

16 July 2019 , By Maite Francois

Nowadays, anyone can get a translation in a matter of seconds online. But while a machine translation is excellent for getting a general idea of the meaning of a text, it can get you into all kinds of trouble if you are relying on it to be 100% accurate.

Translating is not a question of simply converting each word in a sentence into another language. You need to think about the context, and also your audience, of course – what is the purpose of your text and who will be reading it? Below are four real-life examples to watch out for with translation.

Double meanings: Is that a badger around your neck?

A retired English teacher told me that she once read the following sentence in one of her student’s homework assignments: “Yesterday, I bought a warm badger to go with my new winter coat”. If you look up the word “das” in a Dutch-English dictionary you will indeed find “badger” as the first meaning, but the person, of course, meant to say “scarf”. If you are not aware of the double meaning of the word “das” in Dutch, you might attract some very strange looks from the people around you.

Cultural differences: Say what!?

Some years ago, Dutch King Willem-Alexander (back then still crown prince) gave a speech in Mexico during the royal family’s visit there. At the end of the speech, he quoted some Spanish: “Let me conclude by sharing a Mexican proverb: Cámaron que se duerme se lo lleva la chingada, or in English: a shrimp that sleeps gets carried by the tide”, he said.

Unfortunately, he used the word “chingada” instead of “corriente”, so in fact, Willem-Alexander said that the shrimp got laid. While “Chingada” is a very normal word in South America, in Mexico it is considered to be extremely vulgar. Not being aware of local differences such as this might get you into trouble, as this story painfully illustrates.

Technical terms: Hitting the nail on the head

Translators are not just language experts, they have a lot of know-how in their specialist field as well. You would think that translating a word like “hammer” would be quite straightforward.

This turns out not to be the case: in the United States standard hammers come with a nail extractor while in the Netherlands, you would call that type of hammer a “klauwhamer” and the ones without an extractor are called a “timmermanshamer”. To make it even more confusing, in Germany, a “Zimmermannshammer” does have a nail extractor.

So, depending on where you are from, you will have a different tool in mind when thinking of a “hammer”, “Hammer” or “hamer”, even though the words sound almost the same. In your day-to-day life, this will not be a problem, but it is something to think about when you are translating a technical instruction.

Too literal: The ham question

Do you know the answer to the ham question? If you are learning Dutch, you might have come across “de hamvraag” – literally “the ham question”. This expression dates back to the 1950s when it was used in a Dutch radio quiz where contestants had to answer questions while climbing a pole. The first prize was a smoked ham that was attached to the top of the pole and the person who answered the last and most important question correctly got to take it home.

So, the ham question is basically the “key question”, but you would use an idiom like “the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question” in American English and in French you could say “la question à cent balles”. But what you definitely cannot say in English is “the ham question”, like I saw in a translation once.

Fresh pair of eyes

A translator looks at the meaning and purpose of a text, takes it apart and puts it back together again in the target language. Professional translators and translation editors know both the original language and the target language inside out, are aware of cultural differences and sensitivities and bring specialist knowledge to the table.

It is very difficult to spot your own mistakes; that is why it is a great idea to have all of your professional texts checked by a second person, whether it’s a colleague, friend or your partner. After all, two people know and see more than one.

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