• Gained in translation

    As a rule, we tend to worry about what gets lost in translation. It’s so easy to lose the phonetic peculiarities and rhythmical beauty of a language, not to mention the connotations certain words bring with them. But there is the opposite difficulty, too. The problem of “gained in translation.” Ideally, a translation shouldn’t have any connotations that aren’t inherent in the source text. The style shouldn’t be elevated (perhaps even if we’re aching to do so) and a second meaning shouldn’t be introduced.

    This problem of “gained in translation” is larger than one might think and something translators have to be aware of. If, for example, someone is translating a historical text on the “Reichstag zu Worms” from the German into English, they have to call this assembly that was held in the 16th century in a German city to discuss a variety of political issues, including reformation of the church, the “Diet of Worms.” It’s a bit startling (and rather humorous) and although historians and other educated folk naturally know that a “diet” was an established assembly and that Worms is just the name of a city – with no closer phonetic relation to the creepy-crawly things in the German language than the word varnish has to an English worm – a general audience in the English-speaking is most likely going to be amused (I at least hope so). 

    There are also examples of gaining something in translation that have more to do with culture than with the words themselves. A translator friend of mine recently told me about a translation she was doing for a daycare center. The center wanted to give parents a great deal of information on how the staff treats the little ones that are in their care. This information included dealing with three-year-olds going to the bathroom. (German tends to be rather open when discussing the body – a tendency that I’ve never found crude. Just open and natural. And not very English!) The phrase that needed translating was that, after the children went to the bathroom, the staff would “das Kind liebevoll saubermachen” – a literal translation would be: “lovingly clean the child”…and we’re talking about the child’s bottom….

    In this case, what would be gained – were that the translator’s choice (and it really shouldn’t be) – is an element of creepiness that verges on the illegal (lovingly wipe?!?) in addition to an element of talking about something one normally doesn’t discuss. The sentence, of course, has to be translated into a phrase that a daycare center in the English-speaking world would actually use. Perhaps something with “patient”…. And of course there are legitimate reasons for a translator to choose not to translate something, a decision that naturally must be communicated to the client.

  • vaccine

    A linguist friend recently asked me if I was familiar with the etymology of the word „vaccine.“ (Yes, linguists talk about this in general conversation). I wasn’t, and she enlightened me.

    It’s from the Latin for „cow“ – vacca – or better vaccinus, meaning „of/from the cow.“ People who became ill with cowpox were known to be immune to the more deadly smallpox virus, and the cowpox virus was originally used as an immunization (vaccination) against smallpox.

  • Translation Teamwork

    In the imagination, one often pictures the translator as a lone wolf, a quiet sort of person who thrives on solitude and sits, shoulders stooped, in a lonely garret whilst poring over books and making painstaking decisions about the right word.

    Although there may be some truth to the image – many of us are indeed introverts, and we most certainly do (and should!) take our words seriously – I would like to maintain that most good translation work is the result of collaboration, and that even the very best translation produced in that solitary garret would benefit from some editing, or at the very least from some feedback.

    I freely admit to enjoying my own company well enough, and I might also cautiously toot my own horn and say I’m quite a competent translator; nevertheless, I like all my translations to be proofread – silly mistakes are, alas, easy to make, and once something wrong is fixed on the page in solid words, it can seem quite right and a fresh pair of eyes are needed to set me right again. What’s more, complicated, pithy (to put it kindly) texts are open to multiple interpretations, and it’s more than useful to have another opinion on what solution is most apt. So, although I always aim to deliver “perfect” (whatever that is) drafts to my proofreaders, alas – again – I have yet to succeed on a longer text.

    Having a sparring partner is essential precisely for larger projects. And in addition to creating a better final product, it also makes the work itself more enjoyable. When I translated Festivals & Traditions in Switzerland, I consulted with Karen Oettli-Geddes, and her comments, edits, feedback, and support proved invaluable. She saved me from several embarrassments, held some of my worst instincts in check, and encouraged my better creative ideas. Her input was crucial when it came to translating (or not) the names of the festivals and in finding age-appropriate, fun language. In short, she played a key role in delivering a translation that satisfied publisher and author – and myself. Nevertheless, although Karen was compensated for her work, she received no mention in the final publication – a common but rather harsh fate in the translation business.

    So at least here: thank you, Karen, for your excellent work and the laughs we had working on this delightful book. I look forward to the next project!

    A link to Karen Oettli’s website

  • Festivals and Traditions in Switzerland

    My translation of the charming Feste & Bräuche in der Schweiz – written by Barbara Piatti, illustrated by Yvonne Rogenmoser, and published by NordSüd – appeared in May 2020.

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