Donald Rumsfeld and translation research

September 20, 2016 5:29 pm

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

September 19, 2016 5:05 pm

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

August 31, 2016 10:21 am

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

August 28, 2016 5:55 pm

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


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

September 27, 2015 2:45 pm

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, …”

The limits of specialisation

September 13, 2015 9:04 pm

The notion that translation neatly falls in to specialist and general has always struck me as pretty dubious. After all, just about every text is about something (and is therefore specialist or even technical to some degree). And on the rare occasions when I have been asked to translate a truly non-specialist text it has usually turned out to be a nightmare – the absence of any identifiable content just forcing me to focus all of my brainpower on ensuring that the right ‘message’ comes across without any tangible hooks to hang it on.

Another problem with the notion of translation as a discipline that divides neatly into specialisms (medical, legal, financial) is that the real world is far messier than that. I often translate investor reports for a pharmaceutical company. Financial or medical? Both.

And this issue was brought home to me with particular force over the weekend when I sat down to translate a commercial contract. Legal, you would have thought. But the contract included a 3-page list of items such as the following:

  • Equipos de sonido
  • Equipos de luces
  • Transporte de equipo de sonido y luces
  • Sound equipment
  • Lighting equipment
  • Transport of sound and lighting equipment

If all texts are about something (and thus specialist) then it is also true that a lot of specialist texts are also about something other than their own field and thus encompass two or more specialisms. Contracts are legal texts (and thus assigned to legal translation specialists) but the contract itself necessarily relates to something else – in this case, the organisation of a series of concerts – with the associated specialist terminology. Financial reports, likewise, report on the activities of specific companies and thus, necessarily, include specialist terminology relating to the company’s field of activity. In practice, this means that you will usually have to handle both the specialist terminology of finance and the specialist terminology of whatever activity the company engages in.

So let’s hear it for all of the ‘general’ translators out there – we are the true specialists!

Financial training under the radar

September 13, 2015 8:46 pm

There’s a strong trend towards validated continuing professional development (CPD) in the translation profession. While I think this is generally a good thing – who would argue against keeping your skills and knowledge up to date? – I sometimes wonder whether the emphasis on official courses, certified seminars and the rest is altogether healthy. If I’m honest, this kind of thing makes up a tiny proportion of the skills development required to keep translators up to speed (and improving) in the modern world.

So here is a little list of my “under the radar” financial training for this year (no certificates or courses, just a list of bloody good finance books and blogs that I’ve read during 2015):

  • Monevator – probably the UK’s best investment blog: an informal, one-stop investment studies university
  • The Incredible Shrinking Alpha, Swedroe, L.
  • Irrational Exuberance, Shiller, R.
  • Stocks for the Long Run, Siegel, J.
  • Sterling Bonds and Fixed Income for the Private Investor, Glowrey, M.
  • All About Asset Allocation, Ferri, R.
  • Rational Expectations: Asset Allocation for Adults, Bernstein, W.
  • Smarter Investing, Hale, T.
  • The FT Guide to Exchange Traded Funds, Stevenson, D.
  • D-I-Y Pensions, Hulton, J.
  • Investing Demystified, Kroijer, L.

There’s two ways to think about my slightly chaotic financial self-education. If you’re into things being validated and rubber-stamped, you might worry that my curriculum has some missing elements. But if you care about motivation and passion – and these, surely, are the key ingredients to any effective education – then my list has one really big plus: these are all books that I have read because I wanted to.

Loose change and wagging tails

June 5, 2014 8:23 pm

I’m in the middle of a long, urgent UN translation, so I was quite pleased when some colloquial business scenarios landed in my in-tray. They consist of four scripts of people complaining to their bosses, and I had a bit of fun with the opportunity for some creative translation:

aquí las bocas van mas sueltas que las monedas que llevo yo en el bolsillo

[Literally: Here people’s mouths are looser than the coins I’ve got in my pocket]

My labrador, Ronia, was lying under my desk while I was working, and she inspired me to come up with the following:

there are so many wagging tongues around here it’s like being at a dog show on a summer’s day


Prima Pagina

March 3, 2014 5:52 pm

I’m finding that a daily podcast is a great way of improving my Italian and keeping abreast of Italian current affairs. Rai3 produces the excellent Prima Pagina, in which a guest journalist summarises the main stories in the day’s newspapers. Over the last 12 months I have followed the demise (but for how long?) of Silvio Berlusconi, the rise (but for how long?) of Matteo Renzi, and the ongoing trials and tribulations of the Italian economy, the Italian political system, and the Italian legal system.

Most frequently heard phrase: “In un paese normale…” [“In a normal country…”].

Word of the year: “rottamatore” [Literally, “scrapper” – Renzi’s nickname, for his promises to bring radical change to Italy’s ageing system.]

Visca Catalunya!

October 4, 2013 12:44 pm

A couple of weeks ago I did an urgent job for a valued client (25k in 10 days). This consisted mainly of PowerPoint presentations in Spanish, but also included in a couple of the files were presenter’s notes – in Catalan. By the time I encountered these, it was the weekend, and the job was due back on the Monday, so there was no question of raising it with the client.

Fortunately, Google translate came to the rescue. (Words you won’t often hear a professional translator uttering.) In my experience, Google translate is okay for gisting (while making the occasional hideous mistake) but its output is a very long way from being presentable, even as a rough draft. However, I wondered if it could be used to turn my Catalan source text into a Spanish source text. I put my source text through Google translate and was pleasantly surprised to find that it produced fairly passable Spanish, which I could then translate into English (checking back against the source, of course, for accuracy) and ironing out any imperfections as I went.

I guess this reflects the relative similarity of Spanish and Catalan, and the fact that ‘business’ Catalan is bound to be strongly influenced by the vocabulary, structures and conventions of Spanish.

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