What’s Right Is Right

“In the end, isn’t translation a matter of personal opinion?”

Construction in Progress (photo by Jurvetson [flickr])

The question was thrown at me by an attorney for the other side who hoped what she was saying was true. If it were, and translations could only be evaluated in the same way we make decisions about fashion or flavors of ice-cream, then the one she had in her hand would be just as valid as the one that my client had submitted.

Obviously, the answer is, “No.” But the question the attorney put to me is an interesting one, and deserves a longer answer. For one thing, this wasn’t the first time I had heard it. The notion that translation is a nebulous art, ill suited to clear rules or standards, is not uncommon, especially among those who have a little multilingual knowledge. That said, I have been working in technical and legal translation for more than a quarter of a century and, outside of the very special context of a court room, where some people can be particularly disinclined to change their minds, I have never seen two translators remain in disagreement over the proper translation of a phrase for more than a few minutes. Invariably, a short discussion is enough to satisfy one of the translators that the other is right, and an evidence-based consensus is quickly achieved.

So where do non-translators (and even some novice translators) get the notion that there is no such thing as a wrong answer?

Part of it comes from the general idea that language itself is mysterious. It is, after all, amazing that so many of us manage to generate complex and flawless grammatical structures without even knowing the rules. (Be honest, gentle reader, if I were to ask you to give an example of the future subjunctive mood, would you be able to do so?) And then there is our awareness of the ambiguity that pervades our communication. If you have ever spent time with a teenager who has just learned how to tell “That’s what she said” jokes, you will know that there are very few short utterances that cannot be taken in two ways.

Another potential source of confusion is bilingual dictionaries. The entry for the French word “adhésif,” for example, is likely to include such English translations as, not only “adhesive” and “glue,” but also “sticker” and “seal.” If they are all listed in the dictionary, who is to say which one is correct?

Going further, even amateur translators will have come across situations in which the same idea can be expressed in two different ways. There is not much difference between saying that, “the cargo is carried by the vehicle” and saying that “the vehicle carries the cargo.” Both are possible, so isn’t the translator’s preference the ultimate arbitrator?

There are two fallacies at work here. The first lies in assuming that, because human choice is involved, the choice is inherently arbitrary. The second is imagining that, because more than one possible correct translation can be conceived,  all translations must be correct.

In any form of complex communication, ambiguity increases as the sample length decreases. One bit could mean anything, and a handful of bytes in a data transmission is generally useless without knowing which packet it came from. So while it is true that an “elongate member,” mentioned by itself, might mean any number of things to a thirteen year old, when we hear that it is “eccentrically coupled to a rotary drive means,” the possible interpretations narrow significantly. Context, in short, determines which readings are right and which are clearly wrong.

It is also context that tells us which of the many terms in the bilingual dictionary will be appropriate. Even if “sticker” is one of the terms listed under the entry for “adhésif,” it is simply incorrect to translate “collés par un adhésif liquide” as “bonded by a liquid sticker.”

The question of how to select the most suitable phrasing is a little too complex to address in a blog post, but is covered in some detail in my chapter on literal translation in the ATA Patent Translator’s Handbook. Suffice it to say, there are rules and, while there may be more than one possible right answer, there are also unquestionably wrong answers.

Forming an option is indeed part of the translation process, but not all options, or translations, are equal.

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IJET

It’s official. I will have the pleasure of presenting at this year’s International Japanese English Translation (IJET) Conference in our home town of Seattle.

I am particularly looking forward to this, as this will be the first time that I will do a presentation with someone else, as a team effort. My partner is Masa Kajiki, who runs MK Translation Firm in Osaka, and is an exceptionally talented translator in his own right.

The presentation is called: Beyond Translation for Information: How to Become Indispensable in J to E Patent Translation for Filing and Litigation, and the blurb reads as follows.

“This seminar will explain what US and Japanese attorneys are looking for in both translations for filing and translations for litigation support. We will present a methodology for meeting the requirements of literal translation, as well as strategies for dealing with particularly difficult constructions in translations for filing, which are rarely seen outside of the patent field.

The session will include a short workshop, in which attendees will be asked to try their hands at some classic J>E patent translation stumpers and evaluate the possible solutions. People are also invited to email us in advance (cross@patenttranslations.com) with difficult phrases and patent-specific terms that they would like to see discussed.

This session is best suited for translators who already have some experience in the field of patents or who have attended seminars covering the basics of patent translation in the past.”

Self Referential or What?

OK, it may not be Gödel, Escher, Bach but here is a link to a piece in the American Translator’s Association Chronicle, which faithful readers will instantly recognize as having first appeared on this very blog. In case you are asking yourself why you should click on a link that will take you to something that you have already read, let me assure you that the piece is infinitely more convincing and authoritative when you read it in all its laid out glory in Jeff Sanfacon’s fine column than when it was merely a blog post. And, before you ask, I am not even going to start with the whole, “If blog posts aren’t convincing then why should I …” line of argument.

On your toes

You know how it is when there are no line breaks in long Japanese claims. Here’s a macro that adds gray highlighting at the end of each likely element (と、). It will save you some eye strain.

 

Sub gray_to()
Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
With Selection.Find
.Text = “と、”
.Replacement.Text = “”
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = False
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchByte = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchFuzzy = False
End With
Selection.Find.Execute
Selection.Range.HighlightColorIndex = wdGray25
Selection.MoveRight Unit:=wdCharacter, Count:=1
End Sub

i ro ha ni ho he

Who else finds it annoying to remember this archaic version of the Japanese alphabet in poem form when you get much past the third letter? Here is a conversion chart for the first 12 that you can bookmark. For fun, I am also including the translation from Wikipedia and links to other translations.

i       i
ro     ii
ha    iii
ni     iv
ho    v
he    vi
to    vii
chi   viii
ri     ix
nu    x
ru    xi
wo   xii

Even the blossoming flowers
Will eventually scatter
Who in our world
Is unchanging?
The deep mountains of vanity–
We cross them today
And we shall not see superficial dreams
Nor be deluded.

http://carlsensei.com/classical/index.php/text/view/191
http://jclab.wordpress.com/2006/11/16/irohauta/