Lessons in translation: make sure you are true to the original text

This brass plaque in an excellent example of a poor translation.

I was soaking in the atmosphere of the medieval castle at Boulogne-sur-Mer in France, when this pair of brass plaques caught my attention. I was perplexed at how a simple but elegant plaque in French had been so poorly translated in the English version.

Elegant French and clumsy English

The English plaque is poorly worded, misses one vital piece of information and adds information which may not be correct.  Here is the English text:

“On September 18th 1944 the Stormont Dundas & Glengarry Highlanders of Canada were guided into the citadel by an unknown Boulonnais via a secret tunnel and surprised the enemy garrison of 200 men.  The Stormont Dundas & Glengarry Highlanders were led by Major Jack Stothart DSO and the guide was an unknown citizen of Boulogne.”

The first rule of translation is to be true to the original.  There are two significant departures from the original French text :

  1. The enemy garrison surrendered, rather than being merely surprised.
  2. The guide was a citizen of Boulogne, but is not mentioned by name. There is no sign that the identity of this person was not known.

There is also the omission that the secret tunnel led to the heart of the citadel.  This would have increased the surprise factor. The second rule of translation is to ensure that the translated text makes sense and reads well.  There are two unnecessary repetitions:

  1. Stormont Dundas & Glengarry Highlanders” only needs to be stated once.
  2. “unknown Boulonnais” in line 3 and “unknown citizen of Boulogne” at the end.

The third rule is to proof read the translated text, preferably using another translator.  Casting a bronze plaque is a deliberate and specialised process and is not done in a hurry.  As the the plaque commemorates such as significant event for current and future generations, the translator should have taken more care. Here is my version:

On September 18th 1944 the Stormont Dundas & Glengarry Highlanders of Canada, commanded  by Major Jack Stothart DSO,  were guided by a citizen of Boulogne through a secret tunnel to the heart of the citadel. The enemy garrison of 200 men was taken by surprise and surrendered.

There are several grades of translation:

  1. A bad translation with grammatical errors that does not convey the meaning of the original.
  2. A poor translation that conveys most of the meaning of the original, but is not well written.
  3. A good translation that does accurately convey the meaning and mood of the original.

This raises questions for anyone involved in producing marketing material in other languages:

  • What standard of translation do you need in your marketing material?
  • How will you make sure the translation is of the right standard?

Someone who speaks and writes a language fluently may not have the skills of a translator.  It is often worth paying for a professional translator. You may also want to ask a native speaker, who knows your industry, to do the proof reading. This is the last tip in this post.

Please share this blog post with anyone you know who works in different languages.

Simon Fawkes
Accredited Mindshop Facilitator
Business to Markets Ltd

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