Tuesday, June 20, 2006

An Interview with Ken Schubert Continued: On Being Literal

The conversation with translator Ken Schubert is continued.

BJE: On your website, you write, "In fact, many everyday expressions are not conducive to a direct translation, but require a creative effort on the part of the translator to convey their true sense." Do you have any examples of such expressions?

KS: There are thousands of examples of everyday expressions that can't be translated directly. The first one that came to mind when you asked the question was "det gäller att." One of my favorite translations is "the trick is to," but of course it's not applicable in most cases. One good approach is to leave the phrase out completely in English.

BJE: Leaving the phrase out completely can be a good solution, but do you ever have clients complain because they feel you haven't been literal enough? How closely do you usually follow a text?

KS: I've had very few complaints about lack of literalness. I generally follow the Swedish text sentence by sentence, though I might combine two sentences or make one sentence into two. Beyond that, I am extremely un-literal in terms of sentence structure or the individual words used. I try to translate technical terms literally, but otherwise I try to ignore the particular word and sentence structure used in Swedish and get to what is being said instead.

BJE: About literalness, that is often a problem new translators have. They are afraid of deviating too much from the text. They feel that being faithful to the text means being completely faithful to each word, each way of saying things, etc. Then they end up with problems where their translation sounds forced and foreign. What advice to you have to them, or to any translator who can't quite let go, as it were?

KS: I think each translator has to develop an approach that feels best to them. At one point early in my career, I would translate the entire text fairly quickly and then spend a lot of time modifying it later. Now I generally spend a good deal of time on each sentence initially and make minimal changes later. The first approach was based on a fairly literal translation that gradually became less literal with each modification. The second approach is based on trying to grasp the meaning of the sentence the first time without getting hung up on the words. The second approach has become natural for me now, but it's still more time-consuming and arduous than a literal approach. So it requires a lot of patience and dedication to what you're doing. Customers won't necessarily notice the difference. And as much as I like my approach, the most important thing is consistency and remaining loyal to the source text, however you define loyalty. I don't like translation that gratuitously adds or subtracts something just because it feels good. For me, anything you "change" has to be because you think it more accurately reflects what is meant by the source text or because it is "what would be said" in a corresponding situation in English.

BJE: Your comment on literalness reminds me of something on your website. You wrote, "Far more than a collection of symbols, a language is a dynamic, complex structure – an organism – that survives and evolves through a constant interplay between the whole and the parts." Can you expand on your perspective on language and translation?

KS: Without going into a long exposition on language, I'll just say that the structure of a language tends to determine the words that are used and not vice versa. That's why a 4-year-old child understands most of what is being said, not because their vocabulary is so large but because they've grasped the essence of the structure. I actually experimented with that when learning French over the past few years. I listened to French radio for a couple of years without looking up a single word. Although I couldn't have repeated literally what was being said, I understood the essence of what was being talked about. For translators, that means that the sentence structure or flow of logic in the Swedish text may not correspond to what works in English. Of course, we're fairly limited by the fact that we usually can't move sentences around between paragraphs. Sometimes it's necessary though. One common difference between English and Swedish is that English tends to present the most vital information about a phenomenon the first time it's mentioned, whereas Swedish will present it gradually. A tiny example I ran across today went something like, "XX is a very useful tool for researchers. This database has been in use for many years..." In English, you would say, "The XX database is a very useful tool for researchers...."

BJE: When you say "structure" could you be specific about what you mean? How much freedom can/should translators take with structure?

KS: I was using structure to refer to a particular language as an organism that follows certain principles. As native speakers, we may not be conscious of the principles, but we formulate our words and sentences in accordance with them. The principles of a foreign language may be more obvious to us. One of my main tasks as a translator as I see it is to allow the way that English generates words and phrases to inform my translation. Of course, I'm limited to a certain extent by the need to express a particular thought from the Swedish text, even if the thought isn't "English" in nature or would naturally appear in another part of the text in English. So you have to make compromises as a translator. But again, I don't think that translators should take any "freedom" with structure. They should look for the structure that best reflects what is meant in Swedish and that is most natural in English, given the constraints they are working under. In other words, the non-literal approach is actually more rigorous than the literal approach because your ideal is "how would an English writer express themselves in this specific situation."

BJE: Yes, and that is what is so challenging. Sometimes a translator can get so caught up in the way something is said in Swedish (or whatever the source language is), that it is difficult to figure out how an English writer would have said it. You have to be creative and you have to keep your native language (the target language) fresh, so it still feels natural to you.

KS: I have to say that translation never truly becomes easy if you take it seriously, because it poses new challenges at each step along the way. And you're still faced by the impossibility of truly capturing the entire meaning of the original. Frequently a translation is "better" than the original in terms of being more understandable conceptually, but it never fully captures the full spontaneity of the way we speak our native languages.

This conversation will be continued in the next post.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

An Interview with Ken Schubert: On Relating Translation to Your Own Life

Recently, I had the chance to discuss translation with translator Ken Schubert. In the next few posts, I’ll include pieces from our conversation.Mr. Schubert, who is originally from the Chicago area, moved to Sweden in 1992. Please see his website
for more information about him and his services.

Brett Jocelyn Epstein: Ken, you started your career as a teacher, and have also been a computer programmer, copy writer, and court assistant. How did you get into translation and how do your other background experiences help you as a translator?

Ken Schubert: I started translating informally soon after I came to Sweden. It seemed the natural thing to do since I've always had a flair for writing. But I actually started doing it professionally as a means to get a work permit – I had been a student up that point, and that doesn't allow you to stay in Sweden long-term.
The key to being a good translator is to have a broad experience of life, both personally and professionally. For most of the texts I get, I can say "Been there, done that..." in one sense or another. It makes a big difference.

BJE: If you think "the key to being a good translator is to have a broad experience of life, both personally and professionally," what does that suggest for young translators who are just starting out?

KS: I'd say that they should focus on the kinds of texts that they can relate to in terms of their own lives and try to read widely and experience other areas. On the other hand, most of us have a vast reservoir of knowledge about many different areas by the time we've reached our late teens. Perhaps I should modify my original statement and say that the key to being a good translator is the ability to relate the text you're translating to your own experience, direct or indirect. If you stop to think about it, you're likely to find that you know a lot more about the subject, at least the essence of what it's about, than you give yourself credit for. Or maybe this has to do with the importance of approaching a text from a comprehensive understanding.

BJE: You've translated literary works as well as more technical documents, such as financial reports and contracts. What kinds of documents do you prefer to translate and why? What sort of translation do you find most challenging? And, to bring all this back to your last comment, how do feel you relate the texts you work on to your own experiences?

KS: There's a thrill to translating literary works. But I never managed to have any of them published, with the exception of a story in an anthology recently. So I wouldn't translate a literary work again unless I knew it was going to be published. Generally the satisfaction of translation is connected with knowing that somebody is going to read and benefit from it. Based on that, I'll take the rather radical position that all kinds of texts are equally challenging and satisfying. Often you have the same opportunity for creativity in an annual report or a letter from the Social Insurance Administration as you do in a novel. In neither case am I talking about creativity in terms of inventing something, but rather in finding ways to reflect the text you are translating in the deepest and most natural way. A phrase might be brilliant in an annual report and lousy in a novel, or vice versa – the challenge in either case is to establish a voice that conveys the spirit of the original and stick to it. As far as relating to my own experience, an annual report is generally about a company that sells a product or service that you have used or seen someone else use – in other words, it's about the everyday world. Of course, that's even more obvious in a novel, which is generally based on universal human experiences.

BJE: Many people find it very difficult, at least initially, to translate contracts, annual reports, instruction manuals, or other such technical documents. They may be experts in terms of the languages involved, and they may even have studied some technical subjects, but it is hard for them to, as you say, relate the texts to their own experiences. Do you have advice for them? Should they look at translation in a different way?

KS: One of the few things I never translate is instruction manuals, and that's probably because I'm lousy at reading them myself. The reason I like contracts and annual reports is that I can easily relate them to the everyday world. Another reason I'm good at contracts is that they are very logical, and I have a logical mind – I majored in math in college. So I would say that people who don't have that bent might want to avoid contracts. But I think that annual reports should be easily relatable for most translators once they get past the misconception that the reports are difficult or unusual in some way.

BJE: I absolutely agree that non-fiction, such as contracts or reports, can be creative and stimulating to work on. There is a thrill in finding the right words and make the text available to a wider audience.

This conversation will be continued in the next post.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Taking a Break

In the next few weeks, I’ll be taking a break from work, and that also means that I’ll be posting less frequently. But I’ll still put up new material, so do check back!

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Sample Codes of Ethics

Just to go back briefly to the codes of ethics topic, here are a few sample codes that some translators’ associations have. I’ve looked at codes from a pretty interesting variety of groups.

American Translators Association

The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators

The Association of Translators and Interpreters of Nova Scotia

Sveriges Facköversättarförening (Look under “Nyheter” at “God yrkessed,” if you can read Swedish)

Nearly all the codes I’ve seen emphasize that translators need to have good skills, not accept work that is beyond their abilities, keep information about clients and customers confidential, be accurate, and make other such expected suggestions. Only the ATA has any sort of code for clients and their guidelines are worth repeating:

“A. I will put my contractual relationship with translators and interpreters in writing and state my expectations prior to work.

“B. I will adhere to agreed terms, payment schedules, and agreed changes, and will not capriciously change job descriptions after work has begun.

“C. I will deal directly with the translator or interpreter about any dispute. If we cannot resolve a dispute, we will seek arbitration.

“D. I will not require translators or interpreters to do unpaid work for the prospect of a paid assignment.

“E. I will not use translators' or interpreters' credentials in bidding or promoting my business without their consent or without the bona fide intention to use their services.

“F. For translations for publication or performance over which I have direct control, I will give translators recognition traditionally given authors.”

It is important to note that even if some translation agencies join translators’ associations and follow these rules, the great majority of a translator’s clients are not members (unless said translator only works for agencies that are corporate members, though not all, or even most, agencies join such associations) and thus are not aware of these codes, nor feel bound to them. So the question remains for how to better educate clients and/or to only work for clients who treat their translators with the respect they deserve.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Car Doesn’t Run? Try Translation!

The last post was on internationalization and I mentioned advertising as something that needs to be carefully translated. I heard about an example of bad advertising translation in regard to Coca-Cola. The soda company tried to translate its “Coke adds life” ad to Japanese and ended up with “Coke brings your ancestors back from the dead.” Slight difference there!

Careful translation isn’t just limited to ads, but also affects product names and the instructions for using said products. A well-known example is the Chevrolet Nova car, which didn’t sell well in Mexico, since “no va” means “it doesn’t go.” Bill Bryson featured a funny example of poorly translated instructions in his book “The Mother Tongue.” On a package of Italian food, he found, “Besmear a backing pan, previously buttered with a good tomato sauce, and, after, dispose the cannelloni, lightly distanced between them in an only couch.”

A Wall Street Journal article on the importance of translation and adaption offers the following statistics from a survey done by a translation company a few years ago: “Close to 50% simply tune out the message of an ad if it is poorly translated. About 65% said bad translations show a lack of caring about the consumer, while nearly a third said it would hinder their loyalty to a product.”

A company can’t afford to waste time, effort, and money on mistranslations. Consumers may laugh at bad translations of ads, product names, or instructions, but the real question is whether they ultimately will avoid the company’s products. Mistranslation simply “doesn’t go.”

Monday, June 05, 2006


In today’s A Word A Day e-newsletter, Wordsmith Anu Garg focused on the word “internationalization.” He offers two definitions:

“1. The act or process of making something international or placing
it under international control.

“2. Making a product or process suitable for use around the globe.”

Something too many companies don’t recognize is that translation is an important part of internationalization, especially in terms of the second definition. Making something suitable for use in another country is not “just replacing error messages from a new language,” as Mr. Garg refers to the process of making a computer program internationalized. Rather, it involves understanding the culture behind the language, and adjusting the language usage to that.

When I taught some English courses at a Swedish advertising agency, I was surprised when some of the students happened to mention that ads they made for the Swedish market had to be significantly changed for the Finnish market. Finland and Sweden were geographically so close, I thought, and Finland was historically influenced by Sweden and even had Swedish-speaking populations, so I didn’t see why the ads wouldn’t work there. But as a translator, I soon realized that this made sense. Finland’s culture is not the same as Sweden’s and even if the countries share some history and some similarities, a Swedish company that assumed it didn’t have to adapt its ads to Finland, or even translate them to Finnish, was not being respectful of its market, and would perhaps not do much business there.

Besides understanding the target market, which some companies have even started employing anthropologists for, a company interested in internationalization has to hire skilled translators as well. But the sheer number of poorly translated products, instructions, and ads, some featured on Jay Leno’s “Headlines” segment each week, makes it clear that many companies around the world haven’t quite figured out just what internationalization means yet. Hopefully they got Mr. Garg’s message today.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Virginia Woolf on Translating Humor

In "The Common Reader," Virginia Woolf wrote that "humour is the first of the gifts to perish in a foreign tongue."

As I said in the last post, translating humor is difficult, but apparently Ms. Woolf was not hopeful about a translator's ability to accomplish this hard task.