Lost in Translation

The author of the following article is Caterina Berger. She works as a freelancer for the translation agency Linguation in the field of content creation and online marketing. She majored in Japanese Studies and is working towards a doctorate in General Linguistics. Her favourite area is sociolinguistics and intercultural communication. We are pleased to have her as a guest author.

Admittedly, my title is not exactly original, but there are good reasons for that. In fact it is hard to describe life as a translator more accurately. Between clients who question every syllable of their ten-year-old internship testimony and those who would like to have their 500-page dissertation translated into Chinese by the end of the week, we have the pleasure of coping with unpaid invoices, unclear instructions and corrupt file formats.

As much fun as the pure translation work itself may be – playing with language, the good feeling when you have translated a demanding text (at least in your own eyes) skilfully and accurately into another language, and the fact that you polish up your general knowledge incredibly in the course of researching for many assignments – in the end you usually have a certain feeling: having to prove yourself. Having to justify why the end result is worth the fee paid.

For translation work is often hardly appreciated – if it is noticed at all. And if it is noticed, it is usually due to less successful or amusing examples (see cover picture). However, these are rarely written by professional translators and are more often the work of translation programs or laymen who have grabbed a vacant dictionary. And yet we all regularly come into contact with translations. Films, novels, manuals, computer games, newspaper articles, instruction leaflets, apps, advertising slogans – behind all of them is translation work that remains invisible to most people. Well, why should it be, the whole thing can’t be that difficult if you speak two languages. At this point the response is a clear yes and no. When you are doing your 237th birth certificate, of course it’s no longer a challenge. But apart from such standardised documents, the act of translation is an exciting challenge every time.

For example, there can be more work in choosing an appropriate advertising slogan than in translating an entire magazine article. Why? The whole thing has a name: localisation. Localisation describes the adaptation of a text to the realities of the target language. It is especially important to take cultural and social differences into account. Good localisation manages to address the target group of the text in a different language in the same way, i.e. evoke the same connotations, strike the same note and, of course, also and above all, make sense.

Often only other translators can appreciate the challenges translators face during localisation. It is obvious that dates and times, units of measurement, clothing sizes, currencies or even school grades need to be adapted. It is also obvious to explain to American readers of a German novel what Kaiserschmarrn (a kind of pancake with raisins) is. However, if the protagonist of the German novel suddenly opens a hopper window in the Chinese version, the readers there are more likely to be concerned about the building fabric. Germans, on the other hand, wonder why the Japanese protagonist spends three pages wondering whether she should use one or the other or the third, fourth or fifth version of the phrase for “Thank you for the invitation” during her job interview.

The devil lies, as so often, in the detail and without a profound knowledge of the culture and especially its differences, translations often become awjward – and even when this understanding is there, the implementation is sometimes simply impossible, as the latter example shows: In contrast to German, in which there are roughly two forms for “you” depending on the level of formality, Japanese basically has its own language of politeness, which is so complex that, despite intensive courses, even most native speakers complain about it. Without a footnote, which would probably be longer than the actual paragraph, it would not be possible to convey such facts to the reader, and so these passages usually seem strange to readers with different cultural backgrounds.       

However, advertising slogans often cause even more headaches, because while there is still some room for interpretation in continuous text, slogans have to be short, concise and effective. A well-known example of a successful transcreation, as it is called in the jargon, is the Haribo slogan: “Haribo macht Kinder froh und Erwachsene ebenso!” – literally “Haribo makes children happy and adults as well.” This became “Kids and grown-ups love it so, the happy world of Haribo!”

This is definitely not a literal translation – nevertheless the catchy melody could be kept, while even the original meaning can still be found. What did it take for that? A whole team of marketing experts and translators – and many hours of work.

German original text: Caterina Berger
English translation: BCO

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One thought on “Lost in Translation”

  1. Loved the article. I do the translations of Harlekin articles into English, with help from deepl, which compared with Google Translate is superb. The fun for me too is making the text as natural as possible without losing the author’s characteristics. The Harlekins each have a particular style: some love puns, some philosophical niceties, others historical parallels. Cultural references are always tricky for an international readership. The biggest challenge for me is trying to translate parodies and irony. Such a shame I can’t do subtitles for the video links we use! (Irma is much better when you understand the Dutch spoken!)

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