Going Both Ways

In days of yore, when multilingualism was de rigeur for Europeans of a certain class, foreign governesses forced children to translate poems from their native language into whatever language they were trying to learn. They were expected to preserve rhyme, meter and meaning.  This may seem ridiculous to us, but I doubt that it seemed unreasonable  to the children’s parents, who themselves might be called on to write and publish on philosophy and science in Latin or even Greek — languages that they had never heard spoken by a native tongue.

More recently, when we think of translations into a language other than the translator’s mother tongue, we bring to mind the output of the well-intentioned innocents who produced such classics as the Korean knife label reading, “Keep out of children,” or the French hotel sign that says, “Please leave your values at the front desk.”

It is with good reason that translations prepared by native speakers of the target language have become standard. And yet, there is a risk in this trend too.  Very good translators, with fluent command of their second language, can still misread the source text in ways that are much less likely for native speakers. “False friends” and idioms are common pitfalls, but even ordinary sentences, if sufficiently complex can mislead a non-native speaker. A particular problem with this type of mistake is that, because the target text is being written by a native speaker, in many cases, it will be impossible to detect the mistake by reading the target text alone.

At PTI, our standard practice is to work in teams, in which one translator is a native speaker of the source language and the other is a native speaker of the target language. We check our translations word-by-word and often the two translators will discuss the tricky parts.

This two-heads approach means that the first translator to work on the document does not always have to be a native speaker of the target language. That’s why I occasionally get the opportunity to translate into languages other than my native English, with the safety net of knowing that my working will be carefully reviewed by another translator who will be able to fix all my keep-knife-out-of-children type blunders. Admittedly, this is much easier in the field of patents than it would be for, say, advertising copy. Almost every patent is written using the same register, and boilerplate, stock phrases and standardized vocabulary abound.

I am very appreciative of the insight that I gain by way of my (always painfully slow) translations into Japanese or French. There are levels of intimacy with a language that can only be reached by writing in that language. You can read a phrase a hundred times and understand it, but it is when you are called on to write it that you truly own it.

One realization that this sort of work often brings about for me is how linguistic constraints force the hands of Japanese patent drafters. There are lots of fancy turns of phrase that show up in Japanese patents, but which are rarely seen anywhere else. I may know full well what the phrase means, having translated it countless times, and yet feel a sort of resentment to it. I can’t help thinking, at times, that the author is just trying to show off.  And then one day, translating into Japanese, I will find myself needing to express something with a certain degree of specificity and certain broadness of scope and, lo and behold, I will find that there are no words that so adequately express it as the fancy phrase I was silently mocking just a few days ago. After that, well, me and the phrase are buddies. When I see it in a source document, I don’t just know what it means, I know its shoe size and its favorite flavor of ice-cream.

Likewise, when I muff it and use a Japanese phrase incorrectly, the other translator will explain why I am wrong, which will, at very least, improve my understanding of the phrase, and sometimes open up whole new ways of looking at a grammatical structure or a term.

My son is studying French in grade-school now (alas, we have no governess) and I am not sure that I would want him to be forced into translating poetry into French, but if he were to follow his father’s footsteps into the translation business (a highly unlikely hypothetical) I would encourage him to find a partner and go both ways from time to time.


2 thoughts on “Going Both Ways

  1. Even the video game industry was not spared – All your bases are belong to us?

    Anyway, you’re right. Even native speakers do commit mistakes. The team approach should be standard practice on translation firms.

    Josh McShane

  2. I wholly agree with you on specialization.

    I have written a post about the new languages in demand in the translation blog of TRUSTED TRANSLATIONS.

    Best regards,


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