"Come to a real ho-down," the corporate newsletter article said. "Don your cowboy hats and silver buckles and enjoy barbecued ribs, guitar music and square dancing -- all the hallucinations you need for a good old country and western party." What's this? Will psychedelic drugs be on the buffet? Will guests mistake airplanes for Garth Brooks? Worse yet, will someone try to ride an imaginary mechanical bull?
Of course not. You'll find nothing more unusual at this annual Country and Western Festival than men in leather chaps toting BB guns. The error, my friends, lies in translation. The Danish writer meant to say, "all the elements for a good old country and western party." But careless translation wreaked havoc with the meaning -- and few readers probably got past the first paragraph without scratching their heads or having a good laugh.
Translating text requires a lot more than a decent language dictionary. When your work is transformed into another tongue, you need to learn the translation process, develop a relationship with the translator, and get to know your audience. Both writer and translator are responsible for providing the reader with articles that are accurate, grammatically correct, and true to the writer's meaning and style.
As a self-employed writer and international publications consultant, I have worked on both ends. My writing is often translated from English to other languages. I also hire foreign-language translators and edit translated text. These experiences have shown me time and again that poor translations can be not only embarrassing or humorous, but also dangerous. Take the executive's column about innovation, whose final line was translated to: "We have to keep our minds open to trying new things; you should do this with your wife at home." Luckily, that one was edited before the publication went to press.
Before you take on an assignment, find out if your work might be published in another language. Talk to your editor about who will do the translating, and ask for their qualifications. The best translators are those who were raised bilingual or multilingual. Almost as good are those who gained a second language by living in that country for many years. Two or three years abroad might be enough to learn how to converse, but it is not enough to be a translator. A foreign-language degree can be helpful, but it is no substitute for experience. Many people don't feel truly fluent until they have spoken and written a language every day for ten years or more. It might take even longer to become completely fluent in languages that are difficult to acquire as an adult, such as Japanese or Polish. It does help if the person has training in the art of translation or, better yet, if they are a writer, too.
If the translator's qualifications don't impress you, ask if you can have your own translator look over the piece (If possible, add this to your contract. If not, consider what price you're willing to pay to make sure your work does not go out in a state of poor translation). Don't pick a friend who took a couple of Russian courses in college. Stick with a native speaker who knows the language inside and out. Many translation agencies edit and proofread for reasonable fees. A simple search on the Web will unearth lists of these.
Don't take an agency's expertise for granted either. Find out who will be working on your piece, and make sure they are dealing in the correct dialect (Mexican Spanish and Colombian Spanish are not exactly the same). You can also check your local colleges' language departments to find professors (or students) who are native speakers. If your work is regularly translated to the same language, develop an ongoing relationship with the person you choose; they will become familiar with your writing and you with their translation techniques. Eventually this relationship could help you market your work to foreign-language publications.
Make yourself available to answer the translator's questions and encourage them to call you. If they don't, call them. It is inevitable that they will come across something in your work that is difficult or impossible to translate. They need you, the writer, to clarify your meaning and help them find alternate ways to convey the message. Sometimes it is simply a matter of nuance: "Did you mean sugar-coated words or were the words literally coated with sugar?" When working across time zones, e-mail is invaluable for keeping in touch with translators.
Whenever you write for international audiences, whether your work is translated or not, it helps to be aware of cultural differences. American writers have an advantage because our culture -- from Will Smith to McDonald's -- is familiar around the world. But that does not excuse us from the need to be in tune with our audience. Americans, for example, are accustomed to aggressive business language that does not always go over well in other countries. Do a little investigating and learn about your audience. Brigham Young University offers handy little booklets called "Culturgrams," which provide summaries of cultures around the world.
Once translated, your work should be edited by a second reader. An editor will catch things the translator missed. They also may have suggestions for improving the language or structure. Most reputable international magazines will already have this translation- editing process in place. Smaller publications and corporations, however, might not be as thorough. Too often this step is overlooked and errors slip by. A near-perfect translation can be as distracting as a poor one. Recently, a Spanish publication distributed to a Mexican audience was printed with a tilde missing. The missing squiggle was the first thing readers noticed. Aware that the article had been translated from English, readers were especially attuned to mistakes in their language.
It might be tempting to hand over your article and leave the translation process to your assigning editor. But if you want all your readers to experience your writing as you intended, it's worth it to take the steps above. After all, there's a world of reality between "elements" and "hallucinations."
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