Translator’s questions to herself/Die Übersetzerin wundert sich

Sometimes the translation business raises questions.

1. Translate into English (About the painter Poliakoff):

Als 13. von 14 Kindern nahm ihn seine gläubige Mutter täglich mit in die Kirche. [As the thirteenth of fourteen children, his religious mother took him to church with her every day.]

Who was the thirteenth child, the mother or the painter? If it was the painter, why did she take him – was she superstitious? (Actually, the only Poliakoff I remember ran a mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy).

2. Message from author: Replace Mark Rothko’s Violett Grün Rot with rot, weiß, braun. Text remains the same. (So why didn’t he stick to black and white?)

3. Client says the defendants really are copying our trademark in the Erkennungsleiste of their web site. Translator looks at website but can’t see any kind of Leiste. In addition, there is no such thing as an Erkennungsleiste [recognition toolbar?])
Client is at a meeting. Colleagues say, ‘Just write “web site”.’

4. Client says, ‘The translation was first-class. But just one thing – why did you write express agreement and not expressive agreement?’

5. Author’s English expert (a native German, Leipzig): ‘I have the impression the translator has researched the terminology very well, but her grammar is certainly not that of a native speaker, as I can tell from my university study of English.’ Translator spends several hours refuting grammar ‘errors’ that never were errors except to a non-native speaker (can anyone suggest a better tactic?). A couple of the errors were content errors though, but only 1%. The author, a clergyman: ‘This has been a helpful exercise, as the translation is now improved’.

6. Author’s quote: ‘The translator’s English is unreliable. In English, there are never commas before relative sentences, nor before ‘but’ or ‘that’.’The painting is said to date from’ should be ‘The painting allegedly dates from’. ‘It was known as the chapter-house’ should be ‘the so-called chapter-house’.

7. Some clients are very secretive and won’t tell me the name of the firm the translation is about. It becomes ‘XXX’. So I can’t get all that useful information from their website about the machinery they produce etc. Fortunately, some clients blank out the hyperlinks in the document with XXX, but the hyperlink still works. Or they leave the name of the company in the file details. (Some clients exchange cheeky notes with the secretary in the file details).

10 thoughts on “Translator’s questions to herself/Die Übersetzerin wundert sich

  1. I had it easier when I was a copy editor working with scientific manuscripts by mostly international authors. Most of them were so insecure with their English, I could do anything I wanted with their words. At least most of the time…

  2. Ouch, I don’t envy you! It’s like language teaching, too – everyone thinks they’re an expert (and business clients tend to be some of the worst).

    I wonder if some of your clients are also the type always to return food in a restaurant, no matter what!

    I must say, though, that I’m amused by clients leaving hyperlinks active despite the XXX. Ha ha!

  3. Unfortunately, the most widely spoken foreign language in Germany is BSE (Bad Simple English), and even worse, this language now seems to be endemic at many German corporates and almost all law and accounting firms.

    Why is it that translations that have been done or “improved” by non-native speakers can generally only be understoog properly by mentally back-translating into German?

    So viel Einbildung, so wenig Ausbilding….

  4. Oh, a change has just come in:

    Als dreizehntes von 14 Kindern nahm ihn seine gläubige Mutter täglich mit in die Kirche.

    This is totally mystifying.

    Scott, some of my clients are quite nice too. And some of them have better things to do than wonder how bad my English grammar is. I wonder if they see the name “Marks” and think it’s German?

    At least with language teaching of your own language you have a slight advantage over Germans teaching Germans how to translate into German. I sometimes wonder if the students really want to learn anything.

    BSE overlaps nicely with more than one existing abbreviation. Nice aphorism with Einbildung / Ausbildung.

  5. So typical of many Germans: “I can English” (sic!)

    They think they know it all – and of course, they are much better than a native English speaker.

    I am convinced that, as German-English translators, we are worse-off than our colleagues who translate from other languages into English (the French, for example, treat translators with respect and deference).

  6. Hi Margaret,

    I have the same XXX thing, but the client usually forgets to take out the name of the product as well, so…;-)

    I had once a client who had some comments on my translation and said I wasn’t a native speaker of Italian, simply because I could speak Dutch. I guess there must be a compliment somewhere….

    It takes all kinds, I guess.

  7. Actually, I don’t have this problem with all my clients, so I can’t really generalize about the Germans here, although when it does happen, it happens with a vengeance.

    I suppose most clients don’t understand much about translation, and most of the time I forget that, then suddenly this weird remark hits me.

  8. Die E-Leiste: Possibly the title bar which in browsers renders the current site erkennbar, even in a tabbed state?

    BSE etc: :-) Fortunately (from my German vantage point), the same happens elsewhere as well as I learned yesterday. I am sorry it happened to the English language but if English-language music and products had not been so successful, it could have hit the French language and we would share world-wide something called BSF (or its French equivalent).

    Now, this arrogance bug is something that’s inbred and almost impossible to self-identify (is there such a word?) once you’ve become infected.

  9. I suppose there’s also the issue of who owns language and what is ‘native-speakerdom’, anyway. I certainly don’t think you can put people into two simple groups of native speakers and non-native speakers, especially with a language in the position that English holds in the world. It’s more like a sliding scale, really.

    So just as two ‘native speakers’ would disagree on a point of translation, of course there’s no reason why anyone else wouldn’t want to express their opinion, too. (Alas!)

  10. Clemens: I think you must be right – I had a look at it. Maybe it even has a name?
    I think it’s inevitable that a world language is going to be mangled in communication.

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