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.

(originally posted in July 2015)

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