As every translator knows, there is much more to translation than simply possessing a native or native-level fluency in two or more languages. Translators face many different problems, from differences in style to untranslatable expressions.
We’ve listed a few common problems for translators, along with strategies to deal with them:
Wordy vs. concise languages
Languages differ substantially in terms of their style of expression. For example, in Dutch and English, using few words and short sentences sounds natural. By contrast, French thrives on more complex sentence constructions, and the short phrases common to other languages sound unfinished. This can be particularly problematic when translating promotional content: the short, snappy phrases so natural to English often fall flat in a more loquacious language like French.
Rather than fight these difference in style, it is often advisable to simply accept them: break up lengthy sentences when translating into a more concise language, and use longer phrases if short, snappy phrases sound awkward.
Formal vs. informal language
Languages differ significantly in their level of formality: the English ‘you’ can be either Sie or du in German, u or jij in Dutch, vous or tu in French. Moreover, not all ‘formal’ forms imply the same level of formality: in French, the default option is ‘vous’, ‘tu’ being used only in very familiar settings, whereas the Dutch ‘u’ risks sounding stiff and can often be passed over for the less formal ‘jij’ without sounding the least bit unprofessional.
Discuss with the client whether they have a preference. When in doubt, opt for the formal translation of the word.
Expressions are notoriously difficult to translate effectively, especially since they often involve a play on words specific to the context. Moreover, some idioms simply don’t have an equivalent. For example, the French avaler des couleuvres (to swallow grass snakes), which means ‘to endure a lot of bad treatment without saying a word’.
Whatever you do, DON’T translate literally. Try to find an equivalent in your target language that retains the intended meaning, but accept that there may not be one. If this is the case, simply translate into regular prose.
Texts often expand or shrink in the course of translation. For example, languages like Dutch and German combine different nouns to make a single word, often leading translations from these languages to result in a much higher word count.
Compare the Dutch:
De verzekeringsmaatschappij heeft een bedrijfsaansprakelijkheidsverzekering opgesteld voor het vertaalbureau (10 words)
with its English translation:
The insurance company has drawn up a corporate liability insurance policy for the translation agency (15 words)
If your translation needs to keep to a certain word count, make sure to discuss how realistic this is with the client and decide on a strategy together.
Finding a translator
In the digital age, there are more opportunities than ever to target new audiences with multilingual content. People search for products and services in their own language, and recent research shows many lose interest if they cannot read a website in their mother tongue. But, as discussed above, translating content is not as straightforward as it may seem. When looking for a translator, there are a few simple golden rules to follow:
1. The translator must be a native speaker of the target language, and ideally also the source language. For English, Dutch, German, Spanish, Italian and French translations, Indigoextra’s multilingual team combine native language skills with many years of experience.
2. If you are having specialised content translated, always check that your translator is comfortable with the technical terminology.
3. Work with the same translators over the long term – this makes for consistent multilingual content and allows the translator to really understand the message you want to convey.
Translation is an important but not a simple task, and many factors combine to make it difficult to translate even closely related European languages. Following the strategies outlined above will help to navigate some of the challenges that arise, ensuring that the translated text can effectively reach its target audience!