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Choosing a Translator: Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

When you’re translating from one language into another, you need to be conscious of many things, such as differences in vocabulary, spelling, grammar etc. Cultural differences are also important to take into account.

Once you’ve made allowances for all the disparities between the two languages, you also need to consider the similarities. Yes, it’s as important to consider the similarities between languages as it is to consider the differences. This is because similarities can trip you up as easily as differences.

For example, the English word “natural” and the French word “naturel” are very similar in their spellings. So you might easily end up using one instead of the other, especially if your spell check is set to the other language. Fortunately, the two words mean the same thing; so the audience reading the translation isn’t likely to think too much of it.

However, there are other cases in which you can get tripped up with words that sound the same but mean completely different things. The Spanish word “embarazada” sounds a lot like the English word “embarrassed.” However, it means something completely different, as it is used to refer to someone who is pregnant. Unfortunately, the audience which will be reading your translation is likely to get a good laugh out of any such mistakes.

It’s important that your translator shouldn’t make any such mistakes, no matter how minor they may seem. When you’re choosing someone to fulfill your translation needs, keep the following tips in mind:

Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

Sometimes, people just go by the way a translator looks rather than their command over the language. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri writes about this type of discrimination in her latest book, In Other Words. In this book, Lahiri writes about her experiences living in Italy and learning the language.

Now, Lahiri’s husband, Alberto Vourvoulias is of Guatemalan descent. As a result, he looks a lot more Italian than Jhumpa Lahiri, who is of Indian descent. Whenever Lahiri went with her husband anywhere, a lot of people assumed that he was Italian and would start talking to him in that language. They would assume that Lahiri didn’t know the language very well while her husband did.

In fact, the opposite was true. Lahiri spent many years trying to master the Italian language and her latest book is written completely in Italian. On one of those occasions when people were speaking to her husband and not her, he actually turned to her for a translation. So obviously, this assumption on the part of many Italians upset Lahiri.

But the lesson to be learned from this is that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Just because someone doesn’t look French doesn’t mean that they’re not a good French translator. And just because someone has distinctly French-looking mannerisms doesn’t mean that they’re conversant in the language.

When you hire a translator, make sure you get recommendations from people who’ve used them before. You can also ask for a short sample of their translation before trusting them with all your work. This is the best and only way to figure out if someone is good at translating a certain language.

Look for Holistic Translations

In order to translate a language correctly, you have to think in a holistic manner. You have to take the whole document which is being translated into account. This is because an accurate translation is one which doesn’t translate word-by-word. Instead, it tries to communicate all the information which has been written in a different language.

In order to do this, you might sometimes need to reverse the order in which the information was given in the source language. Different languages function differently and the way in which clauses come together in the destination language might be different than the way they are written in the source language.

In order to make sense to the audience which is reading the translation, you might have to mix things up a little. Instead of saying “The man ran away because the lion was behind him,” you might need to say “the lion was behind him, so the man ran away.”

Sometimes, entire paragraphs might have to be inserted earlier or later if they are to make sense in the destination language. A good translator is one who knows exactly when such changes in presentation need to be made.

Translating Slang and Cultural References

The aim of a good translation is communication. In order to communicate well with people in the destination language, many changes might need to be made.

You might have to take slang phrases in the source language and replace them with different slang phrases in the destination language. Cultural references might be different in the source language and the destination language. People speaking the two languages might use different cultural markers.

For someone in the United States, the Grand Canyon might be a well-known, awe-inspiring natural formation. But for someone living in India, Mount Everest might be a similar well-known, awe-inspiring natural formation. A translator would need to decide whether one such cultural marker should be replaced by another.

In some cases, however, keep in mind that it’s best to stick as close to the original as possible. It all depends on the context in which the cultural marker is being used. A good translator is one who can intuitively make the right choices.

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