Saturday, February 06, 2016

Stephen Clarke on the Absurd Translations That the Telegraph's Expat Has Come Across

Among the bad translations of English noted by the Daily Telegraph's Stephen Clarke is this one from
 … the complexity of the linguistic gymnastics you do in your own head shows how essential it is to get translations right when tourists come to your country and try to do everyday tasks.

An English friend was withdrawing some cash with a UK card here in Paris yesterday and told me he thought that the French machine was surprisingly good at English. He’d understood all the commands, and had only been slightly confused when the cash dispenser informed him at the end that his money was “going to come out”, as if it was about to reveal some great secret about its private life.

This reminded me of the absurd translation you so often get if you try to use a French card to buy tickets or withdraw money in the UK. On numerous occasions I’ve been told to “tapez votre broche” which literally means “tap your brooch”. I don’t usually wear brooches, and would therefore be totally befuddled if I hadn’t worked out that broche is a bad literal translation for “pin”.

Unfortunately, the French verb “taper” does also mean type or key in, so a naive French tourist could be misled into thinking that they need to wear some kind of badge that has to be shown to the CCTV cameras and tapped with a fingernail to prove that it’s metal rather than a plastic imitation. After all, England is a place of weird traditions like playing sports matches that last for five days and using indicators on roundabouts. Why not tap a brooch to get money? Anyway, for the information of any Brits out there whose job involves managing a machine that sells things to French speakers via credit cards, the appropriate phrase would be “tapez votre code secret”.

 … [Translation] has been on my mind most of the summer because I finally gave in to peer pressure and decided to check out why these Scandinavians have such a great reputation for crime writing. Is it just because their nights are so long and dark, except in mid-June? Or could it be because pickled herrings make such great murder weapons? Stuff one of those into someone’s throat and they’ll choke in seconds. (That, by the way, is not a suggestion.)

So I’ve read a few, and jolly gory they have turned out to be. It’s not just the herrings that get gutted and pickled. But what has struck me most of all is that I can feel all the time that I’m reading a translation. There have been so many awkward sentences where it felt as though the translator was too scared to stray from the original. Which I can understand – if these crime writers do to their translators what they do to their characters, I’d be terrified of mistranslating the punctuation, let alone a whole sentence.

I tell the translators of my books that I’d like their version to read like perfectly natural writing in their own language, except where I’m deliberately playing with accents or idioms. But maybe the Scandinavians want their books to sound Scandinavian, even when translated, so we get the full effect of a killer prowling through Norwegian slush or a police Volvo skidding on a freshly dismembered body part.