Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Tricky Task of Translating

Language is tricky, especially when it comes to translating.

In Germanic (e.g., English, German, Dutch) and Nordic (e.g., Swedish, Danish) languages, both written and spoken, are organized in a linear way with an emphasis on being concise.  There is an introduction, the main body of the story, followed by the conclusion.

Romanic (or Romance) languages (e.g., Spanish, French) like to be elegant and interesting.  Detours from the main storyline are expected to build the context and atmosphere. In Asian languages, opinions are not being expressed directly. As a result, there is a lot of circularity.  To avoid potential loss of face, ideas are hinted at or indicate and not presented in a straightforward way. A point of view is only expressed once feedback from other speakers or readers is received.

Translators are very much aware of this. Due to differences in culture and language structure, it is impossible to translate “word-for-word” from one language to another.  A translator must have a solid understanding of this before starting to translate. For example, the Japanese word “hai” is literally translated as “yes.”  For most Westerners, that would be pretty straightforward: “Yes, I understood and agree”.  Japanese however, would understand “Yes, I understand what you are saying” without any further commitment. Even more, r a Japanese would understand “hai” as “Yes, I hear that you are saying something but I don’t understand what you are saying”.

Differences in cultural values result in different preferred methods of speech.  In American English, an individual is assumed to be in control of his or her destiny) the American Dream). As a result, there is a preference for using the “active” tense (e.g., “I wrote the marketing plan”) as opposed to the passive tense (e.g., “The marketing plan was written by me.”). Some US companies such as Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) even have that in their guidelines (e.g., on their partner portals)

Good translators are very much aware of these issues. They will do their research and make sure that their translation is being proofread before submitting it to the client.

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Talking about Language

Language is not only a part of our daily life, but also an elementary part of our culture. Even within one country or state, there are regional differences in the same language. The differences between U.S., Australian, and British English (e.g., traffic light vs. robot) are actually modest compared to differences between dialects of Spanish and German.

Idioms are figures of speech that are not be used (when literally translated) in other languages. For example, the notion of “knock it out of the ball park” makes sense in the US, but is not understood in other countries. The noun “serendipity” is also mainly used in the US, and will not be understood by non-Americans.

But information is also transferred in non-verbal communication. In some cultures, people nod to signify “yes” and shake their heads to signify “no;” in other cultures (e.g., Greece, India) this practice is different.

If we look ad neologisms, there is a language issue there as well. Neologisms are terms that have come into language relatively recently as technology or society involved. Computer technology gave birth to the term “spam” and “add-on”. But different countries use different words. A computer is called a “Rechner” in German-speaking countries. A cell phone is called a “mobiel” in Dutch and a “Handy” in German.

Slang exists within almost all languages known to man. Slang does not only vary per region, but also per social group. There are often significant generation gaps in the use of slang (e.g., groovy).

Language is alive and always evolving. It’s one of the most creative tools to express feelings or convey an idea. Every day, new expressions and concepts are being coined (e.g., 9-9-9 tax plan).

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Hypercorrection – no need to worry!

Hypercorrection is a common phenomenon. It occurs when someone deliberately tries to avoid making an error in the use of language by overcompensating. As a result, that person is making another error in grammar or style.

The classic example of hypercorrection is the use of “you and I” when “you and me” would actually be correct.

The rule, which is drilled into us from early childhood, is never to use the word “me” in the subject of a sentence. A sentence such as: “You and me are friends” is therefore a no-no. Since this rule was so thoroughly hammered into our heads, many of us still feel uncomfortable about using a construction such as “you and me” anywhere in a sentence.

As a result, a proper sentence such as: “The inheritance will be split between you and me” just does not sound good. When someone mistakenly states: “The inheritance will be split between you and I”, he or she is hypercorrecting.

Another well-worn example of hypercorrection is substituting “whom” for “who” in a sentence like “I need to call my wife, who I know is going to be upset.” Since the rules for using “who” and “whom” are rather tricky and unintuitive, most people will opt for the option that sounds most pretentious.

As a general rule of thumb: it is really OK to start a sentence with “but” or “and”.

Furthermore, please feel free to split infinitives. Your English teacher might be upset, but just keep in mind: language is a tool for communication; and not some lofty scientific goal in itself!

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