Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Translators Are Traitors pt. II

Lesson time, kiddies, because I'm growing tired of encountering this over the past few years. Specifically, it's limited to Russian to English translating. As for other languages, I can't comment. Romance languages have that irritating habit of sort of sounding like each other and thus don't cause too many problems (what with the same root n'all) for anyone learning Spanish, French and Italian all in one go, but I'm sure common problems occur with all translators/editors and all are driven equally nuts by them.

So here goes. To set a sort of, umm... background thingy... tone. Or mood. Or whatever. For those unaware of who/what I am, outside of studies I have been translating and editing semi-passively for the past three years, and I have picked up a few things that may, at first , be small and mildly insignificant. But small things lead to big problems, and those problems can eventually come back to bite you and everyone above and below you in the ass. I'm not talking on the level of Krushchev's shoe-banging "We will bury you!" incident at the UN, merely professional bits that, frankly, should go completely without saying. Especially with the ludicrous power of the Internet available. The fact that you're reading this and are possibly mildly interested in translating/editing means that you, too, have no excuse for fluffing up your translating skills.

Bear in mind that I'm drawing all this from personal experience, and this is just how I do things, not dogmatic regurtitation from some wanky book on linguistics. The pissed-offness inside me will come and go, so this may be scattered over several posts, depending on the level of bile herein.

So, pray tell, what's the very VERY first basic rule of translating anything, be it a text of a Russian gossip magazine to a press release by an industry magazine to an extract from some book or other? Anyone? No? Four simple words:

Get. Your. Facts. Straight.

This isn't rocket science, unless you're this girl, it's simple common sense. By "get your facts straight", I'm talking about the names of people, titles, organizations, places, and so forth. Proper nouns, more or less. So how do you go about doing this? Well, some of the time, such words won't cause too much grief, as they're already well established and are talked about so much you'd wish they'd shut up. Let's use a pathetically easy example...

In English:
- North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

In French:
- Organisation du traité de l'Atlantique Nord (OTAN)
(And no, in case you were wondering, they weren't being pretentious at those meetings, spelling it backwards and forwards on all the posters)

And in Russian:
- Организация Североатлантического договора (НАТО)
(Organizatsiya Severoatlanticheskovo dogovora NATO)

Okay, so not so hard. All those things translate fairly literally. In Russian, we see, literally translated word-by-word into English, 'Organization of the North Atlantic agreement', yet the acronym still remains НАТО, even though it should technically be something like ОСД because, as we've established, it's so darn well-known that everyone (bar the French) calls it NATO...

...but you'd be surprised! I wrote there 'Organization of the North Atlantic agreement', literally, and - guess what - that's what some excuses for translators will actually write, rather than North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or even NATO! Why? Because they don't take ten seconds (I'm not kidding, that's how quickly this can be done) to double check their efforts.

Let's try something a little harder:

In English:

The United States Department of Defense (sometimes just DoD)

in Russian:

Министерство обороны США (Ministerstvo oborony S-SHA)
also written as
Департамент обороны США (Departament oborony S-SHA)

Here is a slightly less talked about institution, but nigh-on every country has one. In Britain we have the Ministry of Defence, and in Russian it translates to Ministry of Defense too, but (aha!) not in America! America calls their's (theirs? whatever) the Department of Defense (with the American spelling on the s, by the way), even though it deals with the exact same issues as its foreign counterparts. So, while everyone else in the world will be satisfied with the American DoD referred to as the Ministry of Defense, Americans bloody well won't. This instance isn't the biggest crime against communication, but it's the tip of the iceberg.

Now let's draw one from experience, but I'll need another preamble:

More often than not there are direct equivalents between Russian and English phrases like "When pigs fly", the Russian equivalent is "When crabs whistle on the mountains" (which is more evocative than its English counterpart, frankly). Of course, some phrases have no English equivalent because they relate to some weird cultural peculiarity that takes a whole paragraph to explain and by the time you get done with it everyone else has stopped reading.

So getting back on topic. Some Russian journalist in a newspaper a while back, probably in an attempt to be sarcastic, wrote the phrase мозговой штурм (mozgovoi shturm) in Dr. Evil-style finger quotation marks. It wasn't an attempt to introduce a new phrase into the Russian language - like, say, making the word 'Russophobia' or 'reset button' de rigeur - because it's already an extremely well-established set phrase in both English and Russian. Why he/she put it in quotation marks is irrelevant, what matters is that the phrase itself is in quotation marks which, if it hasn't already, should be ringing alarm bells in a translator's head.

Let's break it down first and look at this short phrase literally. Мозговой (mozgovoi) is taken from the noun мозга (mozga) which means brain. By turning it into мозговой, it makes it adjectival, i.e. of the brain - a particular beauty of the Russian language, in that verbs and nouns can be easily turned into adjectives.

[Incidentaly, this noun is masculine despite having a feminine ending.]

Штурм (shturm), following the adjective, is the noun 'assault' or 'storm'. Figured it out yet? What's that word we have in English that contains the words 'brain' and 'storm'? Yep, that's right - brainstorming.

For argument's sake, let's say you have just landed on the planet and aren't that savvy at the English language - how can we go about figuring out what the correct translation into English is for мозговой штурм? What you need are the following, in order of (sequential) importance:

- Google
- Wikipedia
- Multitran
- Lingvo

Non internet thingies:

- MS Word (purely for the semi-helpful grammar correction thing, but we'll focus on the phrase for the moment)

I won't be using all of these for the example, but it'll be relevant later when I come back to do more complex terms.

So here's the order of play: take мозговой штурм and put it inside quotation marks. Putting a phrase in quotation marks in a Google search means that phrase and that phrase alone is searched for, rather than just a bunch of keywords. So, copy and paste

"мозговой штурм"

into Google's search field. You should come up with results like this.

How many results is that? A million in Russian? That's a lot, given that it's just Russian. Methinks we're onto something here.

Now then, what's the very first result on that results page? Is that a Russian Wikipedia entry? Sure looks like it. So click on that.

Right. You're still bamboozled, maybe, because now the title of the article reads 'Метод мозгового штурма' (metod mozgovo sturma), but that's only because it's an incredibly smart redirect by Wikipedia/Google to its proper full term in Russian, as opposed to just мозговой штурм. Here's the last step. Scroll down the left hand side of the Wikipedia entry, and you'll see a list - titled на других языках (na drugikh yizikakh) - of languages that have the respective equivalents of that entry. Hunt for the word 'English' in that list. Click on it and there we have it: the correct entry for мозговой штурм is... brainstorming!

So that's an easy example of how you can figure out certain terms from Russian to English, using just Google and Wikipedia. Once you get used to it, the process takes no longer than half a minute or so, and should prevent you from embarrassing yourself by submitting alternate versions like "storming of minds" or "brain assault". I've spent far too long writing this up, but I'll come back to it later and elaborate on more advanced methods.


In other news, new first prize for Carrying Random Shit Around Award goes to some confused scraggly-haired man walking down Tverskaya carrying a foot-long scale model Spanish galleon in one hand and a massive shabby rectangular cardboard slung over his opposing shoulder while I was eating sushi in a restaurant a couple of lazy afternoons ago.

1 comment:

  1. And i thought i had too much time on my hands.

    Spanish, however ironic it may seem, is not a language i would personally choose to learn.


    Is that Jesse Ventura in the picture?

    I really should work at some point.