The Vagaries of Translation

Waiting for my flight at an airport, I mechanically followed the bright red running letters in the bottom of the arrivals table. “There are situated checkroom and hotel waiting for your guidance at airport”. In spite of my professional training, I did not quite manage to understand its meaning. Naturally, in a country where English is not a native or state language, one expects certain peculiarities, like the absence of the articles, or some odd phrasing. They are obviously the result of a direct translation from one language into another. A handwritten notice in front of a sauna, for instance, instructing people, “Please to come naked in total but covered with towel” is perfectly understandable. A warning at the entrance to a cathedral, “Please come dressed appropriately or not at all” may make a purist smile, but again, the meaning is clear. “Bathrobes and slippers are not for restaurant, come dressed nicely” is fine. But, something, anything waiting for my guidance at an airport? What did they do, use Google-translator? This e-service is very useful when you need to translate something fast. You copy and paste a text into the box, get a word-for-word translation, but then you have to check and edit it all, consulting a dictionary whenever you feel that something is “off”. The reason is, e-translators give you a verbatim version, which is not necessarily true to the original.

I have accumulated quite a collection of mistranslations, misunderstandings and what is generally known as “bloopers”. Recently, a friend asked me for a consultation: her article, written in English, was declined by a journal, and she received a recommendation “to work at her English”. Yes, she used Google-translation; no, she did not proof-read or edit the text afterwards. Once I looked through her text, I immediately saw what had happened. She wrote about the Assumption; about the Cathedral of the Assumption in Moscow, which in Russian is called Ouspensky Cathedral. She quoted one of the main authorities on the subject, whose last name happened to be Ouspensky. “Assumption” was used by e-translator programme in all three cases: as the religious term, as the cathedral’s name, and as the person’s name, which made her text practically incomprehensible. This mistake was easily corrected.

Naturally there are many instances of what is known as “untranslatables” in any language. A word, a phrase, an idiom, realia, the sounds and letters themselves may present difficulties. There is no sound for “th” in Russian. The name Heather, e.g., is most often transliterated as “Heater”. Poetry is probably the best example of something which can only be rendered or retold into another language. Prose seems to be easier, but this impression is often deceptive. Just because we know all the words does not mean we can readily find an equivalent or an analogue for them. “Earth Invaded, Says Scientist!” ran a fictional newspaper heading in a science fiction story. “Earth Invaded, Say Scientists!” is a continuation. Then the author goes on to comment, “What a change a slight shifting of one letter may make!” I know all the words, I know what he means, but how do I render it into my own language? It is possible, but it takes some doing. In “Water Babies”, a lovely timeless classic by Charles Kingsley, the main hero is a young boy, and consequently many other characters are also boys. It so happens that in Russian, such words as fish, butterfly, and dragonfly are always feminine. How does one turn them into masculine? Again, it is possible, with a lot of work.

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