Posted by: sbilingual | October 21, 2011

Lost in translation: traps for translators

As the postmodernists never tire of telling us,language is slippery. The precise meaning of words can slip and slide rather than remain fixed. Consider the sign that reads ‘Dogs must be carried on an escalator’ – on the surface it seems clear enough that if you have a dog you should pick it up before riding the escalator. But spare a thought for the poor obedient people frantically trying to borrow a dog so they can get to the upper level.

If the slippery nature of meaning is a problem in the use of just one language, the issues are multiplied for professional translators or those translating while pursuinglanguage studies abroad or learning a new language at home. When working across several languages, maintaining the meaning of slippery words can become a veritable ice rink. Here are some areas that can easily get lost in translation:

Idiotic idioms

Automatic translators, such as Google Translate, will often struggle with idiomatic phrases. Generally speaking, idioms are expressions that cannot be completely understood from the meanings of their individual components.

Phrases such as ‘a heavy smoker’ require not just knowledge of the individual words but an understanding and appreciation of how the language is actually used in everyday speech. The phrase refers to someone who smokes a lot rather than an overweight nicotine addict. During a recent German course in Freiburg a student encountered a similar problem translating the idiomatic German phrase ‘ein blaues auge’, referring to someone who was ‘blue-eyed’ rather than someone with a ‘black eye’ from being hit.

While some idiomatic expressions carry over very well from one language to another, others simply do not. ‘He’s getting on my nerves’ and ‘Er geht mir auf die Nerven’ are almost identical. But more often, the German and the English versions are nothing alike: ‘He had the nerve to say that’ and ‘Er hatte die Stirn, das zu sagen’ (which literally translates as ‘he had the forehead … ‘) can cause issues, but the cunning translator may substitute another body part for an English equivalent: ‘He had the cheek to say that.’

Acrimonious acronyms

Acronyms are often a headache for translators. Do you keep the original acronym or do you create a new one from your translation of the organisation’s name? From one point of view, it depends on how well known the organisation is. For example, the WTO’s acronym in French (OMC) is as well known as the English one. However, it is a different matter for lesser-known bodies. If you translate the name of an organisation, it would make sense to also translate the acronym. But then you run the risk of making the organisation completely unrecognisable. One safe way to deal with this issue is to leave the original name and acronym – ‘Summer Camp Switzerland’ and SSC, for example – but include a translation of the name in brackets when it first appears.

Other troubling translations

There are many other potential problem areas for translators, including: the proper names of people, organisations and places; the use of slang; and handling punctuation conventions. While the solution you come up with is one of personal choice, you should look carefully at how others have handled the issues and choose what appears to be the most elegant and effective solution. It is also important to be consistent – choose a way to treat something and stick with it throughout. Hopefully your meaning will not get too lost in translation.


  1. Everything revolves around the two terms “semantic” and stylistic” and the question is whether there are actually two languages available in diglossia. It is worth briefly mentioning the English/French translation specialists, Vinay and Darbelnet, who noted that the translations of bilingual speakers are not the same as those of monolingual speakers living in their monolingual domain. Taking a Canadian and a French translator as respective examples, they wrote that the French translator is able to identify suitable equivalents immediately (familiar reality) and would know, for example, that the motorway sign ‘slow’ should be rendered by the verb ‘ralentir’ (‘to slow down’) rather than by ‘lentement’ (‘slowly’) and that ‘slippery when wet’, which would be translated literally by the Canadian as ‘glissant si humide’, should be rendered as ‘ralentir par temps de pluie’ (‘slow down when raining’) or ‘chaussée glissante’ (‘slippery road’).

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