Lost in Translation

I work as a freelance translator of books from Italian and French into English. It is interesting work for the most part but one thing I have learned over the years is that translation is just as creative as any other kind of writing. The easy part of translating is working out what the author is saying in the foreign language. The difficult part is expressing that in English in such a way that it doesn’t sound as if it had be translated. The aim is to make the translation sound as if it had been written in English in the first place.
Here’s an example from Italian:
“La decorazione epigrafica si trova lungo i bordi dell’ottagono posto ai piedi del Cristo. Si tratta di una decorazione in oro, la cui disposizione è insolita.”
You could translate that literally like this:
“The epigraphic decoration finds itself along the edges of the octagon placed at the feet of the Christ. One is dealing with a decoration in gold, whose disposition is unusual.”
As you can see, it’s not entirely incomprehensible, but it certainly sounds as if it had been translated from another language. However, the job of the translator is to make it sound as if it had been written in English. So you could translate it like this instead:
“There is epigraphic decoration along the edges of the octagon at Christ’s feet. The decoration is in gold and is arranged in an unusual way.”
There are plenty of examples of bad translation. Like this sign in a Chinese hotel room: “Don’t lean on the mirror and throw the thick staff to it.”
Or the sign at a railroad station in Italy warning travelers: “No consummation on the tables.”
Or the warning in a public park in Spain: “Please do not empty your dog here.”
Or this admonition on a Chinese-made remote-control helicopter: “If blade damage. don’t be fly. otherwise it will create the human body or blame damage.”
And there are thousands more aberration out there just waiting to be misunderstood.

English is a confusing enough language without bizarre phrases populating public places and instruction manuals. Just think how difficult it would be if English wasn’t your first language and you had to learn it from scratch. English grammar is much simpler than that of inflected languages like French, Italian, Spanish and German. But it compensates for this deficiency by having scores of irregular verbs, weird spelling, unpredictable word pronunciation and words pronounced differently depending on the context; not to mention the constant use of proverbs and idiomatic phrases that must be the bane of any student of the English language. As Edmund Spenser noted as early as 1579, “they have made our English language a gallimaufry or hodgepodge of all other speeches,”… thus proving his own point.

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