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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”.

donald-rumsfeld

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.

Literary translation resources

This year I’ve added some literary translation to my Spanish translation workshop for the M.Sc. students at Heriot Watt. In the process, I’ve been hunting around for relevant resources, so I thought I’d gather some of them together here:

George Orwell’s six rules of writing: adapted for translators

In his essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell railed against confusing and unclear writing.

orwell

He summarised his advice in six rules, which have been the mainstay of English style guides ever since:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in  print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Unlike writers, translators are constrained by their source text. (I also bridle at the absolute nature of Orwell’s rules.) So I have adapted them for translators:

  1. When translating a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech, you don’t always need to use the direct equivalent in the target language. You may not wish to use a figure of speech at all. And if you do, try to avoid using any figure of speech that feels tired and worn out.
  2. When translating a source text that is packed with long words, remember that the best translation will often involve shorter words.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, consider doing so. It may make your translation clearer and more elegant.
  4. Avoid using the passive where the active would be a more natural choice.
  5. Only use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if the field and register of the text mean this is the best choice or if there is no everyday English equivalent.
  6. Never write anything that is outright barbarous, even if the source text reads as if it was written by Attila the Hun.

“sub” bingo

People often ask me what sort of texts I translate. Anyone asking me this question over the last week was likely to be greeted by a grunt, as I am currently crawling my way towards the end of 34,000 words of Bolivian bureaucratese. The only thing that keeps me sane (or at least makes the madness of it all bearable) is to play little games of bingo as I go. Here is the winning ticket in this week’s “sub” bingo:

“Los Subreceptores de los subcomponentes del proyecto de subvención, …”