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Let’s All Be Translators — Colm Ryan

A translator who cannot translate properly is like a mechanic who is unaware that diesel won’t make a petrol engine go or a brain surgeon who thinks the brain is located in the pelvis….

Guest Blogger Colm Ryan has a few choice words to say in favor of that much-maligned component of translation: quality.


Way back in the early 1980s, there was a popular graffito that went: “Yesterday I coudnt even spel executiv. Now I are one.”

If you replace “executiv” with “translater,” that 1980s graffito suddenly starts to ring frighteningly true today. It is my sad and sorry duty to inform you that the translation industry is full of people who not only cannot spell, they also cannot understand the foreign language they profess to be able to understand, and—rather more worrying—they cannot write in the language they grew up speaking.

A translator who cannot translate properly is like a mechanic who is unaware that diesel won’t make a petrol engine go, or a brain surgeon who thinks the brain is located in the pelvis, or a milkmaid who can’t find a cow’s nipples even with the aid of a handheld bovine nipple locator that beeps as it gets closer to its target and features an illuminated display that flashes “COW NIPPLES DETECTED – MULTIPLE HITS” in glowing red text. (The comparison is not unjustified. If you think about it, a good bilingual dictionary provides about this level of detail.)

We translators don’t just translate porn subtitles and clock radio instructions, you see: we also translate laws, contracts, and international treaties. We translate lists of ingredients that are closely scanned by people with allergies. We translate blueprints for rockets, the results of drug trials, and—remember this if you ever need to go to hospital while you’re in a foreign country—we translate the operating instructions for complex medical equipment.

That alone should be sufficient to impress upon you just how cataclysmically frightening this situation is.

You’ve may already have figured out that this article contains some of the translation howlers I’ve come across in my work. Recently, in fact, our translation agency received a commission to translate a book on the history of sport. As is common practice in these cases, we gave aspiring Italian-to-English translators a short extract to translate before considering them for the job. Below are a couple of sentences from the extract, on the history of tennis:

I reali d’Inghilterra lo praticarono intensamente, nota era la passione di Enrico VIII per il gioco: la sua seconda moglie Anna Bolena venne arrestata per adulterio mentre assisteva a una partita del marito a Hampton Court.

For those of you who aren’t experts in Italian, here is a translation that would be considered “very good”:

The English royals played it incessantly. Henry VIII was famously fond of the game; and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, was arrested for adultery as she watched one of her husband’s matches at Hampton Court.

You need to know a couple of things before I continue. First, the verb assistere (as in “mentre assisteva a una partita” in the extract above) here means to watch or to witness. It’s a classic false friend, but one that all translators from Italian would be expected to know.

Second, there is no confusion possible in the original Italian that Ms. Boleyn was committing adultery while hubby was playing tennis. No: it clearly means that she was arrested while hubby was playing tennis. The kind of howlers I’m going to show you aren’t of the predictable “Anne Boleyn was discovered in flagrante delicto by the Tudor adultery police while she watched her husband play tennis over the shoulder of her manly lover” variety. Even bad translators aren’t quite that bad. (I hope.)

Here, then, are some entries we received. All errors have been carefully retained from the original tests submitted to us.

The royal family of England practised it intensly [sic], Henry VIII’s passion for this game was well known; his second wife Anna Bolena was arrested for adultery while she was watching a match of her husband in Hampton Court.

(Ask yourself: who, in the English-speaking world, doesn’t know that “Anna Bolena” has an English spelling?)

The royal family of England use [sic] to practice it intensely; known was the passion of Henry VIII for the game….

(More than a touch of Google Translate in that one, methinks.)

… his second wife Anna Bolena was arrested for adultery in the middle of a game with her husband at Hampton Court.

(Anna Bolena rears her ugly head again, and this time she’s actually playing tennis. Sigh.)

The game was intensely adopted by the English Royalties and Henry VIII was an avid player: his second wife Anna Bolena was arrested for adultery while assisting her husband’s match at Hampton Court.

(I can see her business card now: “Anna Bolena: Ball Girl to the English Royalties.”)

These are just four of no fewer than ten failed tests. You’ll be glad to hear that we did finally find someone to translate the book who can read fairly simple Italian (this text is by no means difficult) and who can write reasonably well. But now let’s give the translators who failed a chance to defend their work. After all, maybe they just had a bad day.

Here’s the reply we received from the author of one of the above tests, when she discovered she wasn’t going to get the job:

I am very suprised [sic] and disappointed at your comments. No one has ever refused my translations in my eleven years of translation work except for [your company] who do not seen [sic] to want to work with me.

And that, in every possible sense of the phrase, was all she wrote.

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