16 June 2014

Translating meaning, not words

Cross-cultural training courses such as those proposed by MindTools, Kwintessial or any number of other providers are big business. All address the multiple challenges posed by languages and cultures. Some also address the special challenges of different cultures that share the same or similar languages (think Australia vs the UK, Portugal vs Brazil, France vs Quebec, etc.).

An allied category of communication challenges is the way all language/cultural groups apply meanings to certain expressions that are quite different from what the words appear to mean, especially to anyone who knows the language but not the culture in question. This is a special challenge wherever monolingual speakers of English deal with second-language speakers with a strong command of English, but not necessarily the cultural baggage that goes with mother-tongue speech and, of course, the reverse.

Misunderstandings between British and Dutch business people are discussed by various websites, one example being Expatia.
On 13 June, FT columnist Gillian Tett discussed a list of frequently misunderstood list of expressions under the heading A guide to (mis)communication.

After you've looked at this list, think for a moment about what these types of expressions means for translators.
Fortunately 101 things a translator needs to know offers guidance right from #1.
Under the heading Translators don’t translate words – they translate meaning this wise little book says:
"Machines and dictionaries translate words. But it takes a thinking, reasoning human being to translate what words mean. Consider how you would translate the simple command “Shoot”, depending on whether the person doing the shooting is a soldier, a footballer, a photographer, a gambler throwing dice, or a friend with something to tell you that you are eager to hear. The key here, as in all translation, is context."

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