Language is such a dynamic entity, that one would be hard pressed to compile a list of words or phrases that mean exactly the same thing they did several centuries ago. As cultures evolve, merge, marry, mate and procreate to form new linguistic little offspring, language, too, takes on new forms and formats.
The challenge for the modern translator is multi-pronged. From deciphering how to translate “got milk” to the mind-boggling difficulty of translating humor and poetry, the trials of interlingual translation are obvious. Yet, it is not just cross-lingual translation that poses these posers. Even within a language, translation can become a veritable nightmare of Elm Street-ish proportions. In this article, we will attempt to navigate the translation minefield – not to find solutions, but merely to identify and tag the problems themselves.
Identifying with Idioms
Idioms are to language as curves are to shapes. One cannot expect to sound colloquial unless they throw in a fair few. Of course, in formal written language, this problem may not be extensive, but everywhere else it often throws a spanner in the works, idiomatically speaking. The translation of idioms can be extremely challenging when working with two different languages, but it can still be a thorn in your side for same-language translations.
Acronyms are truly some of the most difficult terms to translate because even if you do successfully translate the expansion, the resulting acronym is likely to be completely different – which may fails to identify the organisation or entity in its well-known form. One trick is to not use a different acronym, but simply translate the expansion and keep the acronym as is. For example, in Romanian , NATO is translated as Organizația Tratatului Atlanticului de Nord – which in French and Spanish has been abbreviated as OTAN. However, NATO is used in Romanian, not OTAN – which would match the expanded translation. This simplifies the process immensely because neither the identity nor the meaning is lost in translation. An excellent article on the subject of translating acronyms can be found here.
Properly Proper Names
Proper names – and even nicknames – are often hilarious when translated. In the world of the mafia, names like Sam “Golf Bag” Hunt evoked terror in the hearts of men and women alike; but seriously, do you think anyone would be afraid of a Sam “Golf Tasche” Jagd if they heard of him in Hamburg? The best solution for proper names is to keep them as they are. But what if the target language uses a different script? In such cases, a transliteration is typically used. This will, at least, preserve the phonetic integrity of a name – to a certain extent. This is especially critical in technical translation, where names of mechanical components, scientific names, etc. are involved.
The challenges with slang are very similar to those that apply to idioms. Since these are typically colloquial usages, it can be difficult to express the exact meaning and sentiment in another language. It is here that translation within the same language poses difficulties as well, because some slang can be regional rather than national. For example, only someone who has ever been to Texas is likely to know that all swole up is not a conversation about somebody’s twisted ankle, but about someone being obstinate and proud – not to mention agger-vated. Neither is a non-Californian expected to understand that a butthurt is not a coccygeal concussion, but a person being upset over a minor issue. Slang, therefore, is not just an interlingual issue.
Accuracy versus Modern Usage
Bible translations are a good example of accuracy versus modern usage or, to use a translator’s phrase, “literal versus dynamic equivalent.” In an article by Dr. Eugene Merrill, faculty member at Dallas Theological Seminary, in the Christian Post, the example used is the Hebrew b’nai yisrael, which literally means “sons of Israel”. However, Dr. Merrill argues, the more ‘dynamic’ phrase would be the gender-inclusive ‘people of Israel’, which Bible authorities agree refers to both men and women. So which one is “right”? There’s the rub.
A Translator’s Only Obligation
The answer to all of these potentially cataclysmic issues is the same: the translator’s duty is to transfer thought-for-thought rather than word-for-word equivalents. Even a machine can do the latter; but, to be a truly effective translator, it is necessary to sometimes sacrifice linguistic accuracy for relevance of meaning. If you think about it, those two elements are not actually counter-intuitive. Greater relevance can only mean greater accuracy, although not in the strictly academic sense. If using the same proper noun or acronym in the target language is the only thing that will help the translation maintain relevance, then so be it; if a particular slang expression is best explained through a footnote, then by all means add one; if an idiom can only be faithful to the meaning of the original by using an entirely different idiom in the target language, then that is what should be done. Of course, one could argue the merits and demerits of following such a system until one is ‘blue in the face’, but the ‘bigger picture’ perspective invariably espouses it.