Why good translators ask questions

Question markCuriosity has always been a virtue when it comes to translation. After all, it’s a profession that attracts many a talented linguist with an inquisitive mind motivated by the daily challenge of finding le mot juste. To find the right words for each translation, translators work with a range of terminology resources, such as dictionaries, glossaries and text corpora. They also research the subject matter of the texts they translate through various channels such as the Internet, books and journals. Yet, despite these resources, there are times when a translator might need to ask you questions about the text that he or she is translating for you – and that’s usually a good sign. Here are a few reasons why.

It could be that the text you are having translated contains terminology unique to your organisation. Acronyms are a case in point. Common acronyms, such as GDP, FIFO and IPO, rarely present a problem. But, if your text contains acronyms that are used exclusively within your organisation, chances are that the translator will need to ask what these mean in order to come up with appropriate ways of translating them.

If your organisation operates in a niche area, it’s likely there will be a number of highly specialised terms and concepts relating to your work. Before deciding how best to translate these for the benefit of your target readership, the translator might need to clarify the exact meaning of certain terms and concepts in the context of your organisation’s activities. By taking this approach, potential misunderstandings can be avoided.

Sometimes, a translator will also want to get in touch if there are various viable options for translating a key term. For example, the German term “Fracht” can be translated into English as “freight” or “cargo”. When handling, say, the translation of a corporate brochure for a logistics company, a translator might want to ask which option the client prefers.

Another possibility could be that the text to be translated appears to contain a mistake, such as a typo or a missing word. Where this is the case, a reliable translator will check what the author actually meant to say rather than hazard a guess in the translation.

In a nutshell, a good translator will carefully read your text, and, if something isn’t clear, he or she will ask. Translators earn their living by communicating messages from one language into another as effectively as possible but, ultimately, no one knows what you want to say better than you do. That’s why it’s definitely worth making yourself – or, if necessary, someone else in your organisation – available to answer questions from the translator while your text is being translated. By asking questions to clarify any relevant points in your text, a translator can ensure that the message conveyed by the translation is precisely the message you want to get across to your audience.

Curious to learn more about the virtues of asking – and answering – questions? Ask us!


What’s in a name? Getting your brand on the road to success in a foreign market

traffic conesThe road to getting your brand established in a foreign market often requires you to steer your way past the pitfalls posed by linguistic and cultural differences. Failing to take these factors into account when marketing a product internationally can harm your brand’s credibility among consumers. So, when moving your brand across the language border, it’s definitely worth giving some thought to how your brand or product names might be received by consumers in your target market. After all, as many companies have found out the hard way, a name that has a delightfully evocative ring to it in one language may – when introduced to speakers of another language – mean something else entirely.

Take the example of American Motors, which – in light of the social unrest in early 1970s America – decided to abandon the name “Rebel” for its mid-size car in favour of the name “Matador”, which was meant to suggest virility and excitement. This appeared to make sense – at least as far as English-speaking consumers were concerned. But when the company introduced the car to the Puerto Rican market, it seems the name was less well received among the country’s Spanish-speaking consumers. Why? Turns out that, in Puerto Rico, the word “matador” can be taken to mean “killer” – a rather unfortunate connotation for Puerto Ricans concerned about safety on the roads.

Another example – also from the car industry – is that of the Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. This luxury car was originally supposed to be named “Silver Mist”, but when the company realised that the word “Mist” in German means “manure”, it was concerned that this name might not appeal to consumers in the lucrative German market. Ultimately, Rolls Royce chose the name “Silver Shadow”. A wise move, as it turns out: the Silver Shadow went on to be one of the most successful models ever produced by the company.

As these automotive anecdotes show, it pays to do some research into the language and culture of the country where you plan to do business. If your brand or product name would cause confusion, embarrassment or offence in the foreign market, you’ll need to consider adapting it.

Have you encountered any odd-sounding brand or product names that really ought to have been more suitably adapted for the target market? Let us know!

Why lateral – rather than literal – thinking is the key to translating marketing communications

cupcake with cherryIf you want your marketing messages to have the same kind of impact on your foreign audience as they do in your domestic market, you can rarely rely on a straightforward literal translation. Say you use the phrase “the icing on the cake” to tell customers about that extra-special finishing touch you’ve added to your product or service. If you want to translate the same phrase unambiguously into French, however, it’s worth bearing in mind that in France it seems to be the cherry – and not so much the icing – that counts. The French tend to say “la cerise sur le gâteau”, which literally means “the cherry on the cake”, to describe that additional special something. Moving away from the culinary setting altogether, a German might use the phrase “das Tüpfelchen auf dem i” (“the dot on the [letter] i”) when referring to the same thing.

What these examples show is that different languages often have their own distinctive ways of expressing the same idea. If you want to communicate clearly and effectively in a foreign language, you need to be aware of these kinds of differences – and a literal translation in many cases just won’t do.

When adapting the tone of voice of your marketing communication to suit your target audience, it’s vital that the translation of your message takes into account the linguistic and cultural norms of the foreign market. To take one example – it’s quite normal for German advertising copy to encourage readers to “convince themselves” of the merits of a given product or service with a phrase such as “überzeugen Sie sich selbst davon!” Yet, such a command – if translated literally into English as “convince yourself about it!” – might well elicit an indignant response from, say, British or American readers. A freer translation along the lines of “why not see for yourself…” would be more in keeping with Anglo-American cultural expectations. A good translator will be aware of these kinds of intercultural differences and think laterally – rather than literally – to get your message across in the way you intended.

What other factors do you consider important when it comes to getting across your marketing message internationally?

Skype Translator – looks can be deceiving

Skype is the latest company to reveal its attempt at machine translation as a helpful, language-barrier-breaking tool. The demo video looks great – unless, that is, you can speak German. On the surface, Skype’s prototype of its translation tool looks fantastic. Most of the translated English subtitles seem adequate, if not especially accurate. You can also see the Skype expert chatting away, the translated German subtitles appearing, and the German-speaking woman seemingly understanding them. However, all is not as it seems. The German woman is talking painstakingly slowly – nobody would speak that slowly or pronounce their words so clearly in a real conversation – and she isn’t speaking with a regional accent or using slang.  She’s also using simplified sentences that often sound very similar to their English equivalents (see the first screenshot below). Given all this, it’s not that surprising that the English subtitles are pretty decent.

“Hallo mein Freund” = “Hello my friend”. Perfectly accurate translation.

Hallo mein Freund” = “Hello my friend”. Perfectly accurate translation.

“Ist es wahr dass du bald nach London umziehst?” should be “Is it true that you will be moving to London soon?” – close but no cigar.

“Ist es wahr dass du bald nach London umziehst?” should be “Is it true that you will be moving to London soon?” Not perfect, but you know what she means.

The man speaking English, on the other hand, is talking quickly and has a regional accent. He also isn’t taking adequate breaks to let the subtitles appear, and is using idioms that won’t translate literally into German. The German subtitles that the woman is reading are nothing but a word-for-word translation of the English, so they don’t make a lot of sense in German.

Literal translation of the German subtitles: “also Skype has its headquarters in London. So I want to be closer my team and you are. Right. Indian food is fantastic. I have some fantastic restaurants there is told”

Literal translation of the German subtitles: “also Skype has its headquarters in London. So I want to be closer my team and you are. Right. Indian food is fantastic. I have some fantastic restaurants there is told”

Literal translation of the German subtitles: “So what the things. So, what spends you in the USA additionally, of course helps me with this demo?”

Literal translation of the German subtitles: “So what the things. So, what spends you in the USA additionally, of course helps me with this demo?”

Although this demo seems great to the untrained eye, Yestrans doesn’t recommend using this tool with international clients in a business setting just yet. It’s an amazing piece of technology with a lot of potential – but it doesn’t work well enough yet to be sure that your message is getting across. Google translate can work some of the time but can’t be relied upon to be accurate when it counts. The same seems to apply here: the technology is good, and can be useful, but isn’t yet at the right level to deliver consistent and accurate results.