23 Apr 2014

The Pitfalls of Quotation Translations

The aim of translation is usually to communicate, clarify and illuminate. However, the complex and nuanced nature of language means just the opposite can sometimes occur.

The internet is littered with poorly translated signs that leave readers baffled and amused. Foreign visitors to this Spanish bank may be left scratching their head after reading:

“We recommend you not to live your values out of the safe box”

translated from:

“Le Recomendamos no dejar sus objetos de valor fuera de la caja de seguridad”

Similarly, English-speaking holidaymakers to Italy may find themselves frozen with indecision as they wrestle with what kind of rubbish they can put in a bin labelled:

“Undistinguished wasted”

translated from:

“Rifiuti indifferenziati”

But ultimately these errors only reflect on the institutions that have hastily employed sub-par translation services. It is an entirely different matter to change the meaning of someone’s statement, especially if that person is a figure of standing in a position of authority.

Translate the meaning

Ray Saptarshi tackles this issue in a piece for UK newspaper The Guardian. He asks the question: is it more important to directly translate a quote and risk losing the meaning, or should translators tidy the phrasing up if they know the point that is actually trying to be made.

As long as there has been reported news, journalists have taken it upon themselves to shape up quotes in order to have them make sense. The alternative is a paragraph of ‘ums’, ‘ahs’ and tongue-tied babble. But reporters quoting people speaking a second language, or translating quotes into English from foreign tongue, can suffer from a type of tunnel vision which sees them quoting verbatim in a bid to produce fast, fair and accurate copy.

However, this can leave the interviewee appearing somehow muddled or dull.

An example given by Saptarshi involves Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro taking about his love of 1960s culture. In the final print he was quoted as saying: “We listened to Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin, and listened to and lived through the life of John Lennon.”

The direct translation actually read “and listening to and living through the life of John Lennon”.

While the second version is an exact translation, neglecting to tidy this phrasing up would have made this educated head of state sound flaky and slightly unsure. Fairer by far in this instance to portray the intended meaning rather than adhere slavishly to a direct translation.

Play the ball, not the man

Another example of the difficulties that can arise when translating people in the public eye is an incident with the now ex-manage of Manchester United, David Moyes, and his player Shinji Kagawa.

Kagawa was made the focus of the British sporting press when he appeared to criticise his manage for not picking him to play often enough.

Talking to journalist in his native tongue after Japan’s 3-1 win over Ghana, he was quoted as responding to the question of why the new man in charge at Old Trafford was not picking him, with “Please ask David Moyes why I’m not in the side”.

But rather than the surely rebuff it had been described as, his Japanese fans had simply interpreted the 23-year star as saying “You would have to ask David Moyes”.

The problem with this translation is the interpretation of the word ‘please’.

“Please ask David Moyes” may be the literal translation but, on its own, it can appear in the English language as an exasperated plea or cry for help.

With little else to write about from the interview, the British press decided to get their teeth into an imagined spat between player and manager. A spat fuelled by a simple piece of mis-translation.

Accurate translations can not only mean the difference between business success and failure, they can also be responsible for correctly portraying the prestige and reputation of a respected figure. Get it right and you walk away with a feather in your cap and improved job prospects, get it wrong and you face ignominy and possible litigation.


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