Among the thousands of languages spoken in today’s world, only around 100 can be translated using machine translation. When technology really can’t do it all for us, we rely heavily on human translators and interpreters for the huge volume of information exchange that’s happening every day. While thanking them and appreciating their commitment, it’s also important to acknowledge that translation and interpretation are not easy jobs. To honour the hard work, let’s take a glimpse at some common struggles that language professionals share.
Sometimes, translation and interpretation struggles can be purely technical.
There are terms, words, names and concepts that just don’t exist in both languages you work with and can’t be matched perfectly. To translate these missing terms, you may discuss with the client and find words in your target language that get as close as they can be to the meaning of the original word, or use the foreign vocabulary as a borrowed word to save its meanings from being lost in translation. The latter happens commonly when translating a menu full of French cuisine into English, or when translating COVID-19 related terms, which are dominated by English, for speakers of other languages.
Even though sometimes the same phrases or word combinations exist in both languages you work with, they might not mean the same thing. Assuming these phrases can be translated word-for-word might get you in trouble. For example, to say someone is “farting rainbows” in English means that the said person is extremely happy or excited, whereas “rainbow farts” in Mandarin Internet slang means the flamboyant and unrealistic compliments given to someone you admire, especially from a fan’s point-of-view to celebrities.
When puns are involved, translation truly becomes a piece of work. “Bread” in English can refer to resources such as money that is crucial for daily survival, and “jam” can take the definition of traffic jam. In other languages, these additional definitions for words might not exist. While you translate the message by its actual meaning (less costly and better efficiency), you lose the literal meaning and all its fun.
There are also times when the struggle comes from the culture, which is trickier than the language itself.
Can you imagine having all of this as an expression of greeting? The top sentence literally means “I have been constantly helped / taken care of by you” and can be understood in English as similar to “thanks for your continuous support;” whereas the bottom sentence expresses goodwill with “please treat me well in the future” when two parties are about to engage in a relationship or communal activity (and is often translated by replacing it with the common English expressions of “I’m looking forward to working with you” or “It was nice meeting you.”) These expressions come from a culture of humbleness and seeing one’s self as a recipient in debt of surrounding people’s gestures, rather than the initiating party (of kindness, help, generosity, etc.). Humble and low-profile it may sound, these are set expressions that are commonly used in business settings, and carry no more emotion than a simple “Best regards.”
Sometimes, it’s about your own judgement as a language professional.
Sticking to the original text
“If you come across…a piece of work that is not well written, you kind of tend to make it better, but you have to always remember that you can’t omit or add anything and you have to follow the structure. So, I think it’s a real struggle when you see a piece of work that could be better, but you have to stick to only translating it.” – Summer Alkarmi, former MCIS employee
When you have to make sacrifices
“Another thing…(is) whether to be faithful to the style of writing or to be faithful to the message that’s being communicated in the writing. Of course, that varies according to the field or area of translation. For instance, I examined that question within the context of a novel, so…sticking to the style of the author is really important, because if you just stick to (the) message, that defeats the purpose of literary translation, which is to allow culture and what the author’s thinking (be transported) in your translation.” – Summer Alkarmi
And of course, there are times when it’s just people around you giving you a hard time.
This happens when friends ask you to translate things in a field with which you’re completely unfamiliar and become disappointed when you can’t do it. Words in different contexts and fields can carry completely different meanings, and a bit of research is sometimes needed for comprehension even in your mother language. To name a few, “low-profile” in jewelry designing means the stone is set close to the band of a ring, “eye pigments” in the cosmetics industry is a coloured eye product with ingredients that are not FDA-approved to be used around eye areas, and having a “mild case” of COVID-19 means that you don’t need to be put on ventilators.
Wrong language detected
When it’s not Arabic or Russian at all.
It could be Farsi/Urdu/Ukrainian/Mongolian or something else. Just as the Latin alphabet is widely used in numerous European languages, in other parts of the world, there are languages that share the same writing systems as well.
Just be nice!
All in all, translation, interpretation, localization and other work in the language industry are skilled jobs and deserve our respect. The challenges and struggles exist just like in other fields and industries. If you happen to have language professional friends with their noses buried in dictionaries, please remember to show your support, try not to ask them to “edit (which basically means rewrite)” poor machine translation results, and just be nice in general!