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Copywriting and transcreation: a marriage made in hell?

On 8/10/16, I attended the ITI Scottish Network autumn event. Titled “Copywriting and transcreation: a marriage made in hell?”, it was delivered by Bill Maslen of The WordGym, and provided an interesting insight into the creative end of the translation industry. The points Bill made about understanding clients’ needs, the intended audience, and the purpose of the text are, in my opinion, applicable to all texts.

“Avoid the obvious word, even if it is the literal equivalent of the original”

I love this from Michael Hofmann. There is really a whole philosophy of translation packed into this one small paragraph.

Image result for michael hofmann

One of his guiding principles for translating, he says, is to avoid the obvious word, even if it is the literal equivalent of the original. When the opening page of a Roth novel contained the word Baracke, he insisted on going with “tenement” rather than “barracks”. In the second paragraph of Hofmann’s version of Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa doesn’t ask “What happened to me?” (Was ist mit mir geschehen?), but “What’s the matter with me?”. He liked the phrase, he says, because it sounds like someone having trouble getting up after a heavy night. “Nobody will notice, but you have taken a step back from the original. You have given yourself a little bit of self-esteem, a little bit of originality, a little bit of boldness. Then the whole thing will appear automotive: look, it’s running on English rather than limping after the German.”

The quote comes from a longer article in the Guardian, which is well worth a read.

Donald Rumsfeld and translation research

In February 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush’s Secretary of Defense from 2001 to 2006, was asked about the evidence linking Iraq to weapons of mass destruction. He famously replied “there are known knowns; there are known unknowns; and there are unknown unknowns”.


The remark was widely mocked at the time as a nonsensical attempt to justify the subsequent invasion of Iraq, the “unknown unknowns” turned out not to exist, and the consequences of the invasion are still playing out in Iraq and across the Middle East today.

However, if instead of talking about non-existent chemical weapons factories, Rumsfeld had been talking about translation research, his point would have been a good one.

In translation we have:

  • known knowns: words, phrases, real world knowledge etc. of which we are certain – no need to research this
  • known unknownswords, phrases, real world knowledge etc. of which we are uncertain – we always need to research this
  • unknown unknowns: words, phrases, real world knowledge etc. that we think we have understood but which actually contain different/additional meanings.

The problem is that, by definition, we don’t know when our source text may contain “unknown unknowns”. As a result, we don’t realise that we need to research them. The solution, fortunately, is simple:

Research everything about which there is the slightest cause for doubt, including all real world information, any parts of the source text where your understanding clashes with the context or with a common sense interpretation, and any phrasing in your translation that you suspect of being influenced by the source text.”

In other words, if in doubt, Google it. And, in the spirit of Donald Rumsfeld, if you’re in doubt about whether you’re in doubt, then you should still Google it.



Don’t write like a robot

A personal bugbear of mine is text that reads as if it has been written by a robot. One example that springs to mind is the use of the formula “and/or”. Logically, this make perfect sense – “apples and/or oranges” technically provides three options: “apples, “oranges” or “apples and oranges”. However, most humans are perfectly capable of understanding, based on context, when the apples and oranges are mutually exclusive and when the text means you can have one or both types of fruit. If you’re writing for humans, it’s best to write as if you are one.