Tag Archives: Kevin Steinbach

Translation Gone Bad—and Good


In the previous post, we discussed what exactly translation and interpreting are, and showed how today almost everyone relies on these services to some extent. This is especially true of anyone involved in business, finance, security, international relations, and any other field in which people speaking two different languages might need to meet or interact. Even if you are not a language worker yourself, your use of language services will improve if you understand what professional translators and interpreters need to do their work. The first part of this post will explore some ways to take the best advantages of any language services you do use. In the second part of the post, we’ll bring it all together by exploring a few real-world examples of language work.

Working with Translators

If you’ve engaged the services of a translator, it probably means you have a document in one language that you want to have in another. Alternatively, you might have a video for which you want subtitles, or some other text that needs to be conveyed in another language. Regardless of your exact goals, you should keep the following tips in mind. (Note: throughout these two sections I have used the term “company” for convenience. The same goes for whatever agency, group, or other body you may be associated with.)

1. Vocabulary and Language Matters

Obviously, most of the work in the target language will be handled by your professional. However, if your company already has established terms for certain proprietary expressions relating to the project, they should be provided to the translator. Product names, slogans, personal titles, or other language relating to your company may have already been established by a previous translator working on another project, and consistency should be maintained. That said, when terms are being translated for the first time, it’s usually best not to pull out a dictionary and try to make them up in the target language yourself. Leave it to the translator to coin something appropriate. (Translators working on cutting-edge medical literature, for example, sometimes find themselves inventing new terminology as part of their work.)

In the same vein, if your company favors a certain style guide or has in-house guidelines, this should be indicated to the translator. These steps will help maintain consistency of style and terminology among documents (which may be handled over the course of years and/or by many different translators).

2. Context

In many cases, the context of a document is reasonably obvious: a juicer manual is aimed at people who will use the juicer. A patent is meant to describe what is being patented. Some documents (such as some contracts) will be mainly boilerplate, and their tone will be set by their nature. Once in a while, though, you may be requesting a translation whose context is either not immediately obvious or is especially important. This is particularly true of personal correspondence: perhaps you are writing to the president of another company, or you are sending your thanks to a host. Is this the first time you’ve written to them? Or have you known them for years? Details like this should be communicated to the translator to ensure the correct tone and usage in the target language.

3. Questions

Sometimes the source text is ambiguous, unclear, or just poorly written. When possible, allow the translator to ask questions, either directly or through a third party, of the original author(s) of the text, or someone who understands the intent and meaning of the document. On a related note, you may wish to discuss with the translator how to handle cases of unclear or badly-written source text: should she translate it just as ambiguously, or clean it up based on her consultation with author?

4. Proofreading

Ideally, of course, your translator will be a consummate professional who almost never makes an error in either her understanding of the source text or her writing in the target language. But since no one’s perfect, it’s best to have work checked whenever possible. Get a proofreader to go over the final translation—in a perfect world, the proofreader would also know the source language, though this is not always possible—and make sure there are no errors in spelling, grammar, or style, and that any guidelines as to house usage and terminology have been followed. (It is also preferable that the proofreader be capable in the target language; once in a while translators find their work being checked over by people with a less than fluent command of the language, who end up introducing more errors than they fix.)

5. Reading a Translation

The above tips have been mainly for someone commissioning a translation, but many more of us will be consumers of translations. As I said in the previous post, we may wish to read a novel, use a manual to a foreign product, watch a movie in another language, or even read a holy text first written in some other tongue. Covering the full range of potential issues when using a translation would be beyond the scope of this post, but a certain mindfulness is called for when using a text that has been translated from another language. Although it’s usually reasonable to assume professional work, there’s always the chance the translator has misconstrued a source-language construction or misused a target-language one, making the target text say something different from the original. Alternatively, there may be cultural background to the original text with which the reader is unfamiliar, and such issues are often too far-reaching for a translator to address within the translated text. In this case, readers should be aware that even passages that appear linguistically clear may not “mean” what they appear to mean; ideally, readers would seek out additional information on the source culture to better understand the translated text.

Working with Interpreters

Hiring an interpreter? You’re most likely going to give a speech to a foreign audience, speak to a foreign counterpart, or participate in a conference or meeting where more than one language will be used. Whatever the specific situation, here are some ways to help things go smoothly for both you and your language worker.

1. Vocabulary Again

Your interpreter will most likely do preparatory research based on the description of the job, but as with a translator, the more materials you can provide ahead of time, the easier things will be. If you have settled in-house terminology or if you expect certain topics to come up, let the interpreter know in advance.

2. Figure Things Out Ahead of Time

If possible, talk to your interpreter ahead of the actual job. In addition to providing any useful materials you have on hand, work out the interpreting situation: what mode of interpreting will be used? If some form of consecutive interpreting is involved, how often should you pause to allow the interpreter to speak? Even more than translating, interpreting is a collaboration between two people, almost a dance, and the more factors you can work out beforehand, the fewer surprises there will be on the day.

3. Pause for the Interpreter

Again, if some form of consecutive interpreting is involved, be aware of how long you have been speaking and how complex the ideas you’ve been expressing are, so that you can pause in time to allow your interpreter to work most effectively. Although it is probably more common for people to go too long without pausing, it is also possible to go too short, breaking up thoughts or sentences so the relationship between the pieces is not clear. This is especially true for languages that have opposing sentence structures, such as English and Japanese. A Japanese might say, for example, “Kare wa kono jiken dewa yougisha to sarete inai.” A fair translation of this sentence would be “He is not being considered as a suspect in this case.” But the Subject-Object-Verb structure of Japanese means the sentence literally reads “He, in this incident, a suspect is being considered not.” You can see how an interpreter, hearing only half of such a sentence, might have trouble rendering it into English: at the halfway point, we don’t know whether “he” is under suspicion or not.

4. Interpreters Use the First Person

People often think interpreters primarily use the third person (“He says he’s glad to see you.” “She wants to take the train to Michigan”). This does happen in very casual situations or when a person is rendering one language into another but is not professionally engaged to do so (a meeting of friends, an after-work party with teams from two countries). However, in professional situations, interpreters typically speak in the first person, assuming the “voice” of the person they are interpreting for. Therefore, Mr. Tanaka may say something in Japanese, and his interpreter may then say to you, “Hello, I am Mr. Tanaka of Jagaimo Corporation. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you for a long time.” An interpreter in a professional situation effaces himself or herself so that your own words and ideas can be communicated clearly and accurately to the listeners.

5. Speak to the Other Party

Following from the above, you should not speak “to” your interpreter. Instead, speak to the audience or person(s) you are addressing. The meeting, etc., is between you and them, not you and the interpreter, who will be trying to make herself invisible precisely so that you can talk to the other party unimpeded. (This goes for interpreters working into sign language as well as spoken language.)

Translation Gone Bad—and Good

At some point we’ve probably all encountered a menu at a Chinese restaurant where the awkward expressions made us giggle (or wonder just what was in those dishes!), so we’re all aware that translations can simply wind up incomprehensible. To wrap up our overview of language work, I would like to examine a few cases which are not as egregious, and which show the more subtle gradations in communication in which translators must often deal.

1. Movies

The movie X-Men: First Class (2011) includes a scene in which two characters are about to embark on a task they have been long preparing for. Character A asks Character B, “Ready for this?”, to which character B replies, “Let’s find out.” When the movie was released in Japan (where Hollywood films are routinely released in English with Japanese subtitles) the response of Character B was “Mochiron!” or “Of course!” This is not precisely a wrong translation; it is, after all, an answer to Character A’s question. But it is a more facile line than the somewhat reluctant original, the go-to quip for this kind of situation, a bit as if Character B had said “I was born ready!” It can’t be said that Japanese lacks the capacity to express Character B’s hesitation—a line such as “Yatte miru shika nai” (“Nothing to do but try it”) suggests itself. This is a case where the translation communicates something slightly, though not catastrophically, different from the original.

2. Burger Chains

When McDonald’s adopted the slogan “I’m lovin’ it” in 2003, they decided to make it part of their marketing globally. This included translating the expression into a variety of languages; in the Philippines, for example, it became “Love ko ‘to” (literally, “I love this”). In contrast, competitor Burger King chose not to translate their slogan, “Have it your way,” when they entered the Philippine market, where English is widely spoken as a second language. This is not to say one choice is better than the other (I have no statistics on how well the chains are doing in the Philippines), but they represent two alternatives in the entrance to a foreign market.

3. Coke


In the mid-2000s, Coca-Cola was using the slogan “The Coke side of life,” which they chose to translate for the Japanese market. This was perhaps not as straightforward as the McDonald’s catch phrase, since it draws on the expression “the bright side of life,” which would be known to English speakers but not necessarily to a Japanese audience. The company went with Coke no kiita jinsei wo (Cokeのきいた人生を). Back-translated, this means roughly “for a life in which Coke is active” or “a life influenced by Coke” (kiku means to have an effect, as with a medicine). Perhaps one could argue that this is not a “faithful” translation, but we are not yet in the realm of localization, either. This translation is somewhere in the middle of the scale, not preserving the English vocabulary exactly, yet conveying a very similar idea.

I hope this overview has helped readers become more aware of when, how, and why they use language services, and will help them use such services more effectively in the future. Something will always be “lost” in translation, but if we’re careful and thoughtful about how we use these resources, we might just be able to find it again.


A note about the author: Kevin Steinbach received his BA in Japanese from Hope College, and has received high honors in translation competitions around the globe.  He has spent hundreds of hours studying linguistics and language, including Mandarin, Japanese, and Tagalog.  He currently lives with his wife in Manila, where he continues to explore translation opportunities.

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Beautiful, but not faithful: The invaluable role of translation and interpreting


There is an apocryphal story about a young interpreter (when I first heard it, he was Korean) who is assigned to interpret during a speech by the president of an American company. The president opens with a joke with which he is clearly pleased, but the novice interpreter cannot fathom how to render it in his native language. Looking distraught, he says to the audience, “The president has just made a joke which he thinks is quite funny, but I am new at this job and cannot possibly tell it for you. For my sake, please, laugh anyway.” The audience, of course, bursts into laughter.

This particular episode may not have happened as such, but countless similar situations certainly have. Our increasingly globalized world demands the routine use of translators and interpreters, yet many people do not fully understand what these activities entail. In this and the following article, we will explore what translating and interpreting are, why we need them, and how they can best be put to use.

What are Translation and Interpreting?

It is fairly common for non-practitioners to use the words “translator” and “interpreter” more or less interchangeably, which can cause confusion as to who does what. To begin with, let’s take a look at what each of these roles involves.

Both activities involve taking discourse in one language (the “source language”) and representing it as discourse in another language (the “target language”). In general, translation refers to doing this in writing, sometimes using a printed source text, while interpreting means transforming one oral discourse into another (such as the young man in our opening paragraph). Thus, a company that wants an instruction manual rendered into another language will hire a translator, while one that wants their CEO to be understood on an overseas visit will get an interpreter. (Many professionals handle both tasks to one extent or another.)

A note on usage: commonly, the act of a translator is referred to as “translation” (sometimes “translating”), and the act of an interpreter is referred to as “interpreting.” The parallel construction “interpretation” is not often used, probably to avoid confusion with the word meaning “an explanation” (as in “Let me give my interpretation of this passage”).

Degrees of Translation

An old saw has it that “translations are like either a wife or a mistress: faithful, but not beautiful, or beautiful, but not faithful.” Of course, this is an oversimplification, but it is true that in translation, a choice must be made about the kind of representation desired in the end product. Translation occurs along a spectrum that runs from “literal” (sometimes called “word-for-word”) on one end to “dynamic” (or “meaning-driven”) on the other. (In principle, the same choice is open to an interpreter, but interpreting by its nature tends to favor certain kinds of rendering.)

Theoretically, a “literal” translation reflects the usage and vocabulary of the original (source language) text precisely, while a “dynamic” translation takes the ideas of the source text and expresses them in a way that sounds natural in the target language. This can be a useful distinction on some level, but it can also create the impression that there is a black and white distinction between these two modes, when in fact translation is always a delicate balance between fidelity and clarity.

For example, the French word bonjour is used as a greeting, usually during the day. It literally means “good day” (bon = good, jour = day), which happens to be an accepted expression in English as well. There are times when “good day” might be a reasonable translation of bonjour, but there are others when it may sound too stilted as compared with the more common “hello.”

A more pointed case is the Japanese expression o-kage-sama de. The “literal” translation of this expression is “by [your] most honorable shadow,” but the English equivalent is “Thanks to you” (as in “Thanks to you, we were able to raise the money we needed”). In this case, the meaning of the “literal” translation is almost completely incomprehensible. And though I refer to it as “literal,” it is only approximately so, since, though kage does mean “shadow,” the honorifics o- and –sama simply don’t have precise counterparts in English. This points up one of the pitfalls of so-called “word-for-word” translation, which is that it implies that for most or even many words there exists an exact equivalent in another language, which often is simply not true.

Nonetheless, it is possible to remain more or less close to the range of vocabulary used in the source text. In addition, there are considerations such as whether a given word in the source text should always be rendered with the same word in the target language, or if the rendering should vary depending on the context. This is a particular concern in, among other situations, translating sacred texts. For example, should the Greek word sarx, which appears throughout the New Testament, be rendered in each case with its basic meaning of “the flesh”? Or should the translation change according to the rhetorical usage—“the flesh,” “the body,” “the sinful nature,” and so on?

Lying at the far “dynamic” end of the translation spectrum is paraphrase, in which the main ideas of the source text are communicated, but in which the translator may also add some embellishment or rephrase the source text in a way he believes makes it more meaningful or communicative in the target language. In the United States, a popular paraphrase translation is Eugene Peterson’s The Message Bible. Here is Genesis 1:1-2 in the New International Version, a translation which sits comfortably in the middle of the literal/dynamic scale:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

Here is the same passage in The Message:

“First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.”

We can see how details (“like a bird”) and commentary (“all you see, all you don’t see”) might be added into a paraphrase. This is different from the shaping of a non-paraphrase translation, which might require the inclusion of asides or notes in the target language to clarify, e.g., cultural facets of the original text. For example, a translator working on a Japanese novel might translate “kare wa shouji wo hiraita” as “He opened the sliding shoji door.” Neither “sliding” nor “door” are technically in the original, as these are understood within the term “shoji,” but they are added for the convenience of English-speaking readers.

There is a third practice which is similar to but distinct from translation, called localization. In localization, a product description, ad campaign, or other text is completely reconfigured to meet the expectations and needs of a foreign audience. This sometimes looks like translation, but often goes beyond even paraphrase in reimagining the text in the target language. So when Nintendo launched its Pokémon franchise in the US, the Japanese tagline “Pokémon getto da ze!” (literally, “I got a Pokémon!”) became the English “Gotta catch ’em all!” Similarly, the names of the characters, which were all puns in Japanese, were recreated as puns in English. For example, a dinosaur-like creature with a large plant bulb on its back was called Fushigidane (sounds like “mysterious seed”) in Japanese, and Bulbasaur in English.

While localization may involve translation, it is ultimately separate, and we will not deal further with it here. Still, anyone embarking on a foreign venture would do well to consider whether translation alone will suffice, or if a broader project is called for.

Kinds of Interpreting

Those who work between languages with spoken texts may do so in a variety of situations and with any of several methods. Below is a brief overview of the forms interpreting may take.

There are two broad types of interpreting, consecutive and simultaneous. In consecutive interpreting, the speaker speaks, then pauses while the interpreter interprets. The amount of speaking done at a stretch will vary; it can be as brief as one thought or sentence or as long as an entire speech. In simultaneous interpreting, the interpreter speaks at the same time as the main speaker.

Simultaneous interpreting can be further broken down based on how the simultaneous speaking is performed. At the United Nations, for example, interpreters work from a booth in which they listen to the speaker through an ear piece, and interpret into a microphone; their words are broadcast to the ear pieces of listeners in the audience. In other situations, an interpreter may stand next to the person who wishes to understand the source language and whisper the interpretation into his or her ear; this is called whispered interpreting.

The simplest form of interpreting is a sort of hybrid of interpreting and translating. In this form, the interpreter is given the text (of a speech, say) ahead of time, and has time to do an initial translation into the target language. During the event proper, the interpreter will mainly read the prepared text, still paying attention to the speaker to allow for any impromptu changes in content. In many cases, however, the content of the source-language discourse is not fixed, such as at a conference or a court trial. In these cases the interpreter will listen to the source-language speaker and immediately render his or her words into the target language (whether consecutively or simultaneously).

Furthermore, the number of languages the interpreter handles may vary. Ideally an interpreter works into just one language (often her native or “A” language); so for example, at a discussion between a Japanese CEO and his American head of US operations, there will be one interpreter rendering the CEO’s remarks into English and another rendering the American’s into Japanese. Sometimes, however, a single interpreter will have to work in both directions. (Let me be clear that I am not casting aspersions on this position; it often happens and many interpreters are perfectly capable of it. It’s simply that much more work for them!)

Translation and Interpreting in a Global Era

All this talk about the “how” of translating and interpreting might leave us asking: why? Why should we know any of this, why should non-practitioners bother to understand what these specialized roles are?

The short answer is that we all need translation and interpreting. Our world is inescapably globalized, and growing more so every day. We read novels originally written in foreign languages, watch movies made in other countries, use products that were conceived in the US and manufactured in China from parts fabricated in half a dozen other places.

That means these practices are relevant to all of us, but especially so for people involved in business, finance, global security or international relations. In any case in which you yourself do not speak or read the other language capably, you will need to rely on a translator or interpreter to help you understand a foreign source text or get your meaning across to an overseas audience.

Anything that used to be in one language and is now in another—from movies to motorcycle manuals—has been translated. We will be better users and consumers of translation and interpreting services if we understand what is involved in the process. We are less likely to make embarrassing language-based mistakes and more likely to succeed in communicating with the other party.

And taking the time to learn something about these practices makes us not just better workers but better global citizens. Any time we reach out in a genuine attempt to communicate with another person, we are showing them our kindness and love—and translators and interpreters can be invaluable partners in reaching out with understanding.

A note about the author: Kevin Steinbach received his BA in Japanese from Hope College, and has received high honors in translation competitions around the globe.  He has spent hundreds of hours studying linguistics and language, including Mandarin, Japanese, and Tagalog.  He currently lives with his wife in Manila, where he continues to explore translation opportunities.

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