Unquestioned Assumptions About Translation

Image by Eric Andresen
Image by Eric Andresen

Encountering translation both professionally and casually, as a consumer, I can’t help noticing certain assumptions on which people operate when ordering, evaluating, and sometimes even performing translation. I will list some of them here in the order of apparent complexity. In other words, while each subsequent attitude may look like a solution to the previous challenge, in fact it only poses more questions. But let us delve into the specific assumptions. Please note that I am not arguing these assumptions are wrong; I am saying they shouldn’t go unchecked and should be applied on a case by case basis.

“Translation Must Reflect The Form of The Original”

This sounds like a naive statement, but this idea is still around, especially in government and personal documents . For example, the credential evaluation service WES asks that applicants send “documents in their original language, together with a literal word-for-word translation by an external translation service.” This notion may originate from the fear that the translator may embellish, omit, or corrupt the meaning of the source (that is, original) text by virtue of interpreting it in terms of the target (that is, translation) language.

However, what people do not realize is that it may not be desirable or even possible to use literal equivalents in a different language. For education credentials, Russians who graduate high school receive a certificate of (literally) “middle” (среднее) education. For someone not familiar with education in Russia, this may sound like “middle school,” which may seriously affect the candidate’s job or education prospects.

In the words of the linguist Roman Jakobson, “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.”  Grammar and vocabulary systems of different languages do not align perfectly, and we often need to add information or omit  information in order to produce a translation. For example, it is impossible to say “cook a meal” (готовить) in Russian so it would not also mean “prepare a meal.” If a restaurant wishes to distinguish between these two notions, they may need to say something like “get the ingredients for a meal ready” vs actually “cook a meal.”

The literal translation approach can make sense in a limited range of applications. In the case of WES, the company states that it “evaluators, who are multi-lingual, [will] verify the translation.” In other words, they will not be thrown off by unusual descriptions. However, in most cases, word for word translation is counterproductive and confusing.Continue reading “Unquestioned Assumptions About Translation”

Culture-relative priorities in healthcare

image by kaniths

It has become commonplace to point out that translators and interpreters not only re-code the message in a different language, but also negotiate cultures. However, concrete examples may demonstrate that this is far from a pretty turn of phrase, even in such seemingly objective and evidence-based disciplines as life sciences. Medical translators and interpreters have to bridge cultures in more than one way; however, in this post I would like to concentrate on the health attitudes differences between the Russian and the American (and perhaps the broader Western) culture.

I will present this as my subjective breakdown of some of the culture-specific health concerns that, while recongized in the one country, are not paid as much heed as in the other.

US health priorities

Dental care

The “Hollywood smile” has almost become an American stereotype. Regular checkups and cleanings are considered obligatory in most families, and people who don’t get them may be disapproved of or even ridiculed. While the newer, more modern, private dental clinics also provide and encourage these preventative services, this practice is relatively new in Russia and is not followed quite so religiously by the general public.

Staying hydrated

Drinking plenty of water is a staple health practice in the US, and is often mentioned in connection with alleviating headaches, hangovers, heat strokes, and the such. Surprising as it may be, older people in Russia may be heard saying “You’re drinking to much!” (referring to water). Once again, we are now talking about the general population’s attitudes and not the medical consensus.

Spreading germs

While Russians realize that germs cause diseases, they do not follow such stringent germ-spread-avoidance measures as people in the US do. For example, Americans no longer sneeze into the palm of their hand and try not to wipe their nose with their hands. These practices, while deemed undesirable, are still common in Russia.

Russian health priorities

Bedrest for fevers and flu

Russians pay attention when told by the doctor to stay in bed for a few days. The general consensus is that a nasty cold/flu will last longer if you try to work/go to school with it. And I don’t mean just the couple days when you have the high fever. I mean as long as you have the disease — granted, that doesn’t apply for a mere runny nose. As a result, Russians may be shocked when children in the US are sent to school with a fever and a DayQuil (this may not be universal, but it did happen to me when I was an exchange student in the US).

Flat feet, scoliosis, and posture

Any bone irregularities are taken very seriously in Russia. For instance, flat feet aren’t shrugged off as a little cosmetic defect that may bring back pain down the road — people with flat feet are encouraged to wear orthopedic insoles and shoes and dissuaded from wearing flats.

Avoiding cold surfaces and drinks

Ironically enough, although Russia is widely associated with cold climates, contact with cold substances/surfaces is considered dangerous in Russia. It is, therefore, not suprising that parents may let a drink from the fridge sit out to reach room temperature before they let their children have it. Similarly, sitting on any cold surfaces like metal or granite is discouraged and avoided as it is thought to cause colds and inner organ inflammations.
My point here is not to ridicule the oddities or “prejudices” of either nation. Even though some may go further than people outside that culture are comfortable with, there is a grain of truth to most of them. Amusing as these differences may be, they pose real challenges to the healthcare interpreter/translator due to the conflicting expectations of the patient and the healthcare professional. Imagine a patient holding any of the notions above try to see a doctor who does not.
Do you have any additions/corrections to the list?

Origins of the Native-Speaker Translator Preference

man writing on paper

An idea you hear repeated by translator training programs, translation companies and clients alike is that a translator should only work into their native language; that is, that any translation should be produced by a native speaker of the language into which it is done. I would like to examine the reasons behind this notion, its actual intentions, and possible more accurate metrics to supplement–or supplant–the native speaker requirement.

The usual reasons given to justify this preference are that, try as they may, no learner can ever achieve the verbal agility and feel for nuance and connotation a native speaker can boast. Examples of funny and downright unintelligible translations made by non-native speakers are usually brought up to corroborate the point.

This reluctance to use non-native translators is understandable, but let us analyze its roots and try to elicit what it is that translation users are looking for as they set forth the native translator requirement. First of all, as I previously wrote on this blog, people in the US — as in many other countries — often don’t start learning a foreign language until their mid-teens or early twenties. At that point, naturally, greater emphasis is placed on comprehension, communication, and conversational fluency than on eloquence, rhetoric, and elaborate penmanship. It is, therefore, concluded that while a language learner may become fluent, they will never reach the heights occupied by a native speaker, unless they have been immersed in their second language for decades.

It logically follows from this attitude that a native speaker is the ultimate yardstick against which any text production is to be measured — often regardless of their training, occupation, and writing abilities. Yet we see that there is at times confusion and errors in native speakers’ speech and writing. While fluency, cultural savvy, and idiomaticity are all traits that native speakers are more likely to display than the most dedicated learners, there are other components of successful writing which cannot be picked up from simply knowing what sounds “natural.” Things like “should have went” are becoming more and more widespread, yet a person with no knowledge of the mechanics of English may have a hard time knowing that, while widespread, these phrases have not yet become accepted English usage. Naturally, there are native speakers who are specifically trained as writers, editors, etc. in their language, but not every native speaker is.

Finally, the fusion of language and literature in US academia may have indirectly lead to this preference. The subject called “English” in US high school and college curricula is, in fact, a combination of English spelling, grammar, and composition with the study and critique of “Anglophone” literature, which may or may not have been originally written in English. Collegiate language professors are expected to teach the literature written in the language they teach, as well. Therefore, learners inevitably internalize that masterpieces of literature are the summit of language arts to which all speakers and learners should aspire but which is, ultimately, unattainable except for a select few. Good writing, therefore, is to be savored, revered, but not attempted by the admirers of these masterpieces.

While it is true that literature, fiction in particular, contains some of the most creative and brilliant examples of language use, language has many areas of application beyond creative writing. Some of these non-literary language applications, such as technical writing, may be more relevant for certain types of translation. What is important is that the translator — native or non-native — have enough background and experience in their genre, attained through extensive study, reading, and, yes, writing, in that genre — writing that non-native speakers are often never expected, encouraged or taught to do. This state of affairs helps perpetuate the native-speaker deification by disenfranchising the learners from active language production, which, in turn hurts their language abilities and ultimately helps corroborate itself by pointing to the examples of poor writing produced by the ill-trained translators.

As I mentioned above, translation clients aren’t consciously trying to discriminate against non-native translators; they are only trying to insure themselves against the poor writing the likes of which had been produced by non-native translators before. Instead of abolishing the native-speaker requirement altogether, I would suggest refining it to add more measurable criteria to that metric. So, instead of asking “Did you grow up speaking this language?” (From what age? To what age? With whom? About what? Where? — you see the problems there), we should be asking the translator for a proven, preferably peer- and audience-reviewed, track record of writing in the particular genre of our text. The list of criteria can certainly be refined and expanded, but I think this direction will help users of translation in their search for the fluent, context-sensitive, and eloquent translator.

Vague Job Titles — Wider Reach or Lack of Substance?

One thing I noticed in US business communication is the frequent use of superordinate terms in job titles. For example, instead of saying “translator” or “interpreter,” people may say “linguist.” Similarly, “educator” is used to mean “teacher” and so on and so forth.

I see several problems with this usage. First of all, some of the uses are inaccurate and erode certain concepts. A linguist is a person who studies or researches language, and a translator is someone who conveys the sense/intention of written communication in one language in a written text in a different language; so not every translator is a linguist and not every linguist is a translator. The second problem is that superordinate terms are often very vague and almost completely devoid of meaning out of context. For example, the word “provider” meant to refer to a “physician” may be cryptic to a person outside the healthcare setting.

So why use superordinates? There may be a few reasons for that. First of all, they are useful for referring to groups of (somewhat) related occupations. In the language industry, translators, interpreters, editors, proofreaders, desktop publishing specialists, and localization specialists may all be referred to as “vendors” — an all-encompassing, if somewhat inaccurate, usage. Furthermore, superordinate terms may be used to cover a vague job description or the speaker’s lack of understanding of the job. Don’t know what your uncle does as an EMT? Make him a healthcare provider. Finally, the use of the vaguer, higher-register term may make the job sound more “official” and, therefore, important. A “teacher,” it would seem, merely passes on knowledge, while an “educator” sounds like someone who sets policy and whose mission is generally nobler and more commendable.

Attempts to resist popular usage are usually futile, so I do not believe we can reverse this trend in US business communication. However, I do believe it is important to be aware of superordinates and why they may be used in a particular context. Then maybe we can talk specifics next time we are looking for a “provider” of sorts.

Invisibility of Translator in Fiction

woman reading

Translator invisibility is a recurring theme in translation studies. To summarize the issue, I will quote Lawrence Venuti’s famous book on the subject:

A translated text, whether prose or poetry, fiction or nonfiction, is judged acceptable by most publishers, reviewers, and readers when it reads fluently, when the absence of any linguistic or stylistic peculiarities makes it seem transparent, giving the appearance that it reflects the foreign writer’s personality or intention or the essential meaning of the foreign text—the appearance, in other words, that the translation is not in fact a  translation, but the “original” (The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation, 1995).

As Venuti points out, this is especially true for the Anglo-American tradition. I have recently received a letter that serves as a vivid example. A testing company was advertising a product of theirs that helped you measure and improve your reading skills. What struck me was that they used texts from both Anglophone and translated literature to illustrate the level of difficulty of each reading level. Interspersed with works written in English were Boccacio’s The Decameron, Cervates’s Don Quixote, and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, among others. This approach fails to address or even acknowledge certain aspects of reading translated literature.

Here are but some of the questions to consider. Which translation is being used and why? Was the translation done soon after the original appeared or centuries after? Is the original still understandable without translation in the country/region where it was written (think Beowulf)? What did the translator strive to achieve with the translation? Did the translator try to emulate the diction of the original? Was the translation intended to emphasize the “foreignness” of the text by including foreign words and references to outside phenomena or was it intended to read as if it had been written in the language of the translation? A good overview of these issues is provided in Literature in Translation by Kent State University professors Kenney and Maier.

The fact that translated texts, shaped by a number of conscious and unconscious choices, are used as a benchmark for reading ability alongside their “domestic” counterparts, is indicative of the lack of translation awareness. This is true of the US, but, from what I remember of my literature classes, it is also true of Russia. We would just be told who the author of the original work was, and we wouldn’t even know whose translation we were reading. Not only does this efface the translator and “steal” due credit from them, it could also inadvertently misrepresent the author, despite the translator’s best efforts. When readers overlook the fact they are reading a book in translation, they may slip into thinking “Author X said Y.”

It’s easy to forget that Y–whatever concrete utterance or abstract idea that may be–reflects the way the translator rendered the author’s text. The translator may have tried to convey the reality that the text referred to, or the sound of the author’s text, or its associations, etc., etc. Whatever the case may be, author X never said Y, or, going back to the reading levels, author X never wrote at a Z reading level.

What is your experience in reading translated texts? Was the fact they were translated ever emphasized or even mentioned? Did you ever compare different translation and discuss the choices made by the translators and the rationale behind them?

Overview of (Some) Language Services

Book with Text
Image by ugaldew

You may hear translation tasks referred to by many different names. Naturally, this may be very confusing for the translation services buyer. Why is my language service provider talking about localization instead of translation? What is the difference between editing and proofreading? In this post, I will try to cover some of the common translation-related tasks. Individual companies or freelancers may have different ways of defining and calling the same tasks. This is meant as an overview.

TEP (Translation – Editing – Proofreading)

  1. Translation – defined by the Common Sense Advisory, a translation market research company, as the “process of rendering written communication from one language into another, or the output that results from this process.” This is normally the first step of any translation project; however, very rarely is this the only one.
  2. Editing – the linguistic review of the translation; usually entails checking the completeness and accuracy of translation, and any grammar, vocabulary, and style issues.
  3. Proofreading – is usually defined as checking the final “proof,” or laid out/typeset document, for any typos and other appearance errors.


In may be worth noting that a lot commercial translation nowadays happens in dedicated environments, called CAT tools (computer-assisted translation tools) or TEnTs (translation environment tools). Basically, text  that need to be translated is imported into a dedicated environment, minimizing the risk of accompanying code or tags being erroneously translated or otherwise corrupted. As a result, the translated content needs to be placed back, or integrated, into the original format. Below are some of the associated tasks that may happen before or simultaneously with the editing.

  1. Localization (engineering) – in the narrow sense may refer to the adaptation of software, websites, and help beyond translation. Localization engineering may include control resizing, reordering elements, replacing graphics, etc.
  2. Desktop publishing (DTP) – adjusting the format and appearance of the translated content in its native environment. Text may expand in translation, so the translated text takes up more space. This warrants adjusting the formatting and layout.

There may be other tasks such as software testing, which I will not be covering in this post. The main objective of this post is to show customers outside the translation industry what services they may be offered – and charged for – beyond translation.

Adaptation in Food Translation

BLT sandwich
Image by winjohn

As the only (advanced) Russian speaker in our company, I sometimes need to consult my colleagues on certain translation choices and conventions. A question I was asked recently was whether the “BLT” in the translated name of a menu item would make sense to the readers and whether it should be left in English.

This actually touches upon what is referred to as domesticating or foreignizing translation. In a nutshell, a domesticating translation makes the text (or any content) look as if it had been written in the target language — that into which the text was translated. By contrast, a foreignizing translation emphasizes that the text was “imported” from elsewhere and strives to reflect the foreign culture and reality for which there may be no exact equivalents in the new language. Both approaches have rationales behind them, depending on the type of text and the author’s — and translator’s! — intention. I will not be discussing the pros and cons of these approaches here; instead, I will try to illustrate their implications for translating something as culture-specific as food.

An important concept to keep in mind is intertextuality. So, going back to our example, “BLT” does not exist in a vacuum. It stands for bacon, lettuce, and tomato, and evokes images of diner food or fast food. Many restaurants in the US have the BLT sandwich on their menus. If you were to ask an older relative about it, they would certainly know what a BLT sandwich was and would probably share a story or two from their past that involved it.

Now, let us examine the two scenarios for translating “BLT” — into Russian, in this case, even though it may work with other languages. You could transcribe BLT phonetically in Cyrillic letters. In other words, you would approximate the sound of the acronym in Russian. Would your average Russian with no prior exposure to American diner/fast food know what that stood for? Probably not. Nothing about the sounds of “BLT” would tell the client that they were buying bacon, lettuce, and tomato.

Alternatively, you may opt for translating the ingredients of the sandwich, resulting in something like “a sandwich with bacon, lettuce, and tomato.” That’s closer to what the English name literally says. This way, the name is more accessible to the client, but it loses the ties to the original American food.

Yet, most international companies seem to opt for the first approach, leaving the names in English with any applicable changes in pronunciation and writing system (see the Russian pages of McDonald’s, Burger King, or Wendy’s). I have just discussed the pitfalls of this approach. The sound combination Cheekin Mucknuggits (as pronounced in Russian) will reveal neither the ingredients nor the shape of the menu item. The name of the food becomes a catchy but meaningless tagline. However, you could argue there are pluses to this approach. By calling their foods the same name — almost a brand name — around the world, these multinationals seem to say, “No matter where you get the X, it’s going to be the quality you have come to expect from our company.”

What’s your take? If you ran a transnational restaurant chain, would you translate the names of your foods, and why?

US Perceptions of Language Learning

This post first appeared on my personal blog.

Strictly Personal

A question I’ve heard a lot in the US is “How long have you been here?” The answer currently stands at 2.5 years and counting, and the reaction has often been “But your English is so good!” The degree of amazement is usually inversely proportionate to the number heard. You may imagine what it was like when that number was in the months. A frequent follow-up question is “Did you know English before you came here?”

Far from insulting me, this line of thinking is very revealing of the Americans’ notions of language-learning. What I take from it is that people often assume that you learn a language by going to a country where it is spoken. This is consistent with how language-learning occurs for many Americans, and they seem to extrapolate that experience onto other people.

Unlike in many countries in Europe and my native Russia, Americans usually don’t…

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Latin Script in Russia

car.jpegI have heard a few people asking the same question about familiarity with the Latin script in Russia, so I decided this is worth addressing. An American technical writer once asked me if the Latin script in “Кнопка Shift” (“the Shift button”) was as unintelligible to Russians as “кнопка” was to Americans. For anyone who is curious, I told him Russian computers had the English word “Shift” on the keyboard, so people were used to seeing it. On a more serious note, I will list some of the questions about the Latin script in Russia.

Are “English letters” confusing for Russians?

McCafe signReaders of non-Latin script languages tend to have a hard time imagining a Latin-script only perspective, so these questions can often be baffling. At least in Russia, you are routinely exposed to the Latin alphabet. Computer keyboards have both Cyrillic and Latin letters on the same keys, and you toggle between the two by pressing Alt + Shift. URLs and email addresses are (mostly) in Latin letters. Many international brands retain the spelling of their names in Latin letters in Russia. Moreover, math and chemical formulas still use Latin letters. In short, no, Latin letters don’t look like a hodge-podge of symbols to a Russian speaker.

So Russians can read English?

Downing Street signYou might have noticed how I’ve been careful to say “Latin” and not “English” letters. While virtually everyone can read and recognize the Latin script, not everyone will read English. In fact, the most prevalent way of reading Latin letters is the Latin way. So, “a” become “ah,” “bee” becomes “bay”… well, you get the idea. A Russian who hasn’t taken English won’t know that the “u” in “cut” is pronounced like an “uh” — they will probably pronounce it like an “oo,” closer to the Latin.

I’ve seen Russian written in Latin letters; why not do that all the time?

Smena Russian film cameraThe Russian language only uses the Cyrillic alphabet. Any Russian text you saw written with the Latin alphabet is what is called transliterated. That means the sounds of the Russian were approximated using Latin letters. There are several systems of transliteration; however, there is no agreed upon standard for “spelling” Russian with Latin letters. The reason Russian words might have been transliterated was because of encoding restrictions of some of the older applications, where only Latin characters could be displayed properly. This practice is really a workaround and is frowned upon.

For these reasons, you should only use the Cyrillic script for your Russian documents. If you are working with a professional copyeditor or translator for your Russian communications, they will be able to verify that all Russian text is legible and not corrupted. Learn how I can help you produce professional content in Russian.