Friday, January 27, 2012

English-Dutch translation challenges

Ablynx ceoOne of my Cambridge professors sent out an intriguing question last week.  Shares in a biotech firm, Ablynx, had dropped 20% after an English-language interview with their CEO, Dr. Edwin Moses (left), was published in Dutch by the Belgian newspaper De Tijd.  Ablynx claims that the translation misrepresented Moses’ remarks, posting their original English and the newspaper’s Dutch versions of the interview on their web site.  De Tijd stands by their translation.

Dr. Bains’ question: ‘Was the translation accurate?”  A close Dutch friend took a look for us, and her opinion was

The translation is indeed more negative and apologizing then the original. The Dutch choice of words and answers seem like an apology, while in the English document the words are more an explanation. There are no real "false" translations, but the English article gives opportunity, the Dutch gives more ideas of possible failure.

BoekenWords matter.  But an upcoming Cambridge seminar, Translation and Figurative Meaning, argues that a correct interpretation depends on more: both the words and context must be right.

Following on from an example by Geach, I gave Google Translate a statement about a local tavern: The Duke of Cambridge sells beer.  It’s Dutch equivalent is “De hertog van Cambridge verkoopt bier.”: Cambridge is a place where the Duke sells beer.

Context also matters.

Occasionally, Dutch friends ask me to review translated texts to assure that they are in “proper English”.  (Let’s set aside the question of whether Americans speak proper English at all).  Often, I find myself wrestling with similar questions of language, context, and intent.

Here’s a real example: the original text is

The degree to which an individual succeeds in developing his personal quality depends on motivation and will power on the one hand, and the opportunities provided by the environment on the other. Willing is thus not the same as being able, but with a bit of good will, much can be achieved, as long as there is a setting in which this is really possible.

My first attempt at a rewrite was

The degree to which an individual succeeds in developing his talents depends on intrinsic motivation and will power, and on opportunities provided by the environment. Being willing to develop is, unfortunately, not the same as being able. But those who are willing can achieve when placed into a setting that enables their talent to develop.

What’s wrong with this rewrite?  I was trying to think too deeply about the author’s meaning, not just about the correctness of his language.  So I ended up rewriting to the extent that I injected my own beliefs and understandings, obscuring the author’s original intent.

I literally started over with a blank page:

The degree to which an individual succeeds in developing his talent depends on their motivation and will power on the one hand, and on the opportunities provided in their environment on the other. Being willing to change is thus not the same as being able: setting combines with motivation to create a context in which development is really possible.

Maybe better?  I didn’t get any feedback.  But it made me think hard about how I do my markups.  And, on reflection, this sort of editing operates on three levels of personal agreement that are also relevant to translation.

1) Correctness: Fixing errors in spelling and syntax. So, his personal quality becomes his personal qualities.

2) Clarity: Resolving ambiguous words to solidify the meaning of a sentence.  So his personal qualities becomes his talents.

3) Agreement: I disagree that talent development depends only on motivation, will power (the same thing as motivation), and environment.  What about ability, educations, social and economic status…

It took a real effort for me to set aside the third and focus just on the first two, and even in just trying to clarify I needed to keep asking myself if I understood the author’s viewpoint.

I don’t think that De Tijd deliberately tried to inject bias into their translation of the interview.  But it’s apparent that their word choices altered the color of the text, changing the reader’s perceptions even as they attempted to preserve the author’s.  It’s a very tricky thing to get right.

As Google Translate reminds me daily (yes, this is real).

Men are Med


Alison said...

Excellent post. It can be difficult sometimes to keep our own bias out of editing. I try to stick to the technical side of editing and use margin comments when I think an idea may need to be expanded or rethought.

Invader_Stu said...

I always suspected that google was sexist. Ever notice that no matter what you type in a image search it comes back with at least one image of a semi naked woman. Google is sexist :p

I always find it interesting as well that a way of saying sorry in Dutch is 'excuses' (think I'm spelling it wrong). It makes it sound like they are coming up with an excuse to my English ears rather then apologising.

Jules: said...

I have always thought of editing and translating to be pretty much the same thing--you have to know what the person wants to say, and then figure out if they've said it correctly. Strangely, I've never really had issues with knowing what someone wants to say. I guess it's one of the benefits of having played translator while growing up (my parents are both ESL people).

gail said...

Great post.It is important to get a translation done right instead of having "that guy from accounting" do it over the weekend. I would also like to point out that a professional translation agency usually offers proofreading services (or just includes them in the translation fee). Believe me, it does help!