03 January 2012

Bellos on translating technical journalism

This post follows those of 30 October, 11 November and 17 December 2011 referring to David Bellos's Is that a fish in your ear? (subtitled, Translation and the meaning of everything). The 'fish', incidentally, refers to the 'Babel fish' in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. (published by Harmony Books in 1979). For more, see this video.

In chapter 28, entitled What Translators Do, Bellos writes:
Here's a tiny example of the kind of changes translators make in order not to change anything much at all. In (a 2003 issue of) the multilingual 'in-flight magazine' supplied to travelers on the Eurostar train, a page is devoted to graphics demonstrating the size and achievements of the whole enterprise of high-speed rail through the Channel Tunnel. One of the bubbles features "334.7 km.h," which is glossed in English as "The record breaking top speed (208 mph) a Eurostar train reached in July 2003 when testing the UK High Speed 1 Line." It is followed by the following French text:  
 Le record de vitesse d'un train Eurostar ├ętabli en juillet 2003 lors du test d'une ligne TGV en Grande-Bretagne.
The suppression of the 'miles per hour' speed in the French translation might be seen as simply conventional -- but the obvious reason for its omission is that it is of no relevance to French readers, who do not generally know how far a mile is anyway. More interesting is the French assertion that 208 miles per hour was the top speed of the train during the test, whereas the English asserts that the train's top speed broke a record -- no train had ever gone faster on a British track. But it's not a record for France, whose TGVs have exceeded that speed many times. So, for the French not to be frankly counterfactual, the translator has to rephrase and recontextualize. However, the real sublety in the recontextualization is when the "UK High Speed 1 Line" becomes just 'a high-speed line in Great Britain' in French. French readers do not need to know the embarrassing fact that Britain still has only one such line, when the French have many, and so they had also better not be told the proper name of a piece of railway engineering that is unique exclusively in British terms. Now linked more closely than ever by a fast train, Britain and France still provide two quite different contexts of use for even the simplest expressions. Translations naturally rephrase the message to adapt it to its altnerative context of use.
The endnote on p353 adds: Eurostar Metropolitan, June 2010: 5. The changes make it clear that this sentence was translated from English into French, and not vice versa. A back-translation of the French would probably give: "Top speed reached in July 2003 by a Eurostar train during testing of a high-speed line in the U.K."
Every aspect mentioned by David Bellos comes under the broad heading of what I call translation by emulation.

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