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How Should One Translate When The Original Is Sexist?
Thread poster: Barbara Cochran, MFA
Barbara Cochran, MFA  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 12:55
Spanish to English
+ ...
May 12, 2007

When I was involved in translator training as a student, the professor gave us an advertisement for one of the big Asian airlines to translate from Spanish. There was a picture of a Geisha girl (even that is sexist but that is how they are commonly referred to). The initial sentence in the ad stated "There are many reasons you should fly with X Airlines." Next to the smiling woman was the sentence "Esta es una." Now if you translate it literally you get, "This is one," like she is waiting for the travelling businessman, far away from his family. She isn't even given the status of a person-she is a "reason." My professor, who was definitely a feminist, said it would be sexist to translate it literarlly and should be translated differently. I said it should be translated in a sexist manner because that was the intended meaning, even though I might not agree with it. Who do you think was right-me or my professor?

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Mats Wiman  Identity Verified
Sweden
Local time: 18:55
Member (2000)
German to Swedish
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MODERATOR
A translator should have no views at all May 15, 2007

We are craftsmen/women doing a transformation job and should not be affected by what a text conveys.
BUT: If you do not like a job: Do not accept it.
You are a FREElancer, not forced to accept anything.

Mats Wiman


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Jan Willem van Dormolen  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 18:55
English to Dutch
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I'm with Mats May 15, 2007

Either you accept a job, and then you translate it as faithfully as possible, or you decline it.
FWIW, I would have declined this job.


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Alfredo Tutino  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:55
English to Italian
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I may decline a job... May 15, 2007

...but if I accept it I think I have to stick to the intended meaning of the text.

This is not just a matter of serving the client: it is also one of responsibility towards the public, that has a right to know that XXX company is a bunch of sexist pigs... - or, to be exact, to decide by themselves if they are.

A different matter, of course, is adapting language and registry to different sensitivities in different countries and cultures - this is a normal part of the job of a translator.


BTW, the same applies, IMO, to such matters as silently correcting technical or scientific errors in other kind of translations.


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Carolin Haase  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 18:55
Member (2006)
English to German
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Exactly! May 15, 2007

Alfredo Tutino wrote:

...but if I accept it I think I have to stick to the intended meaning of the text.



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MMUlr  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 18:55
English to German
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Not quite easy ... May 15, 2007

femme wrote:

When I was involved in translator training as a student, the professor gave us an advertisement for one of the big Asian airlines to translate from Spanish. ... My professor, who was definitely a feminist, said it would be sexist to translate it literarlly and should be translated differently. I said it should be translated in a sexist manner because that was the intended meaning, even though I might not agree with it. Who do you think was right-me or my professor?


If I understand you correctly, this was a training task, not a translation job. So you would have had to discuss things with your professor. I, for my part, follow your opinion and would always try to convey the intended meaning (may it be sexist or not ... and for an advertisment of an Asian airline, you have to take into account the relevant target group: Do they get more money from business *men* flying regularly to Asiain countries, or from feminist women? I would assume, from the first group ).

In a training situation like the one you report, it would be wise, maybe, to do it both ways, give the professor what the professor requests, and make another different version for your own 'pleasure' and satisfaction.


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ntext  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 11:55
German to English
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How many translators does it take to change a light bulb? * May 15, 2007

femme wrote:

Who do you think was right-me or my professor?



Your example refers to a translation exercise in an academic context. For this particular context, your question is merely ... well ... academic and, as far as I'm concerned, unanswerable.

If this were a "real" translation job, however, I would consider issues such as:
- What is the purpose of the translation?
- What is the target readership of the translation, and how does it compare to the target readership of the original ad (e.g. in terms of its cultural and moral sensitivities)?
- What does the client want me to do?

Ultimately, the translation has to work and fulfill its purpose. For example, if the purpose of the translation is to run the ad in another country/culture and attract customers there, then this will guide the translation process. Maybe a rather literal translation will suit the purpose; maybe a free translation will suit the purpose; or a perhaps complete rewrite will suit the purpose.

As always, it's all about the context — not only the context of a word within a sentence, or a sentence within a text, but also about the context in which the translation is prepared.



* Depends on the context.


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xxxSpring City  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:55
Chinese to English
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You could extend this into a lot of political areas May 15, 2007

femme wrote:
My professor, who was definitely a feminist, said it would be sexist to translate it literarlly and should be translated differently. I said it should be translated in a sexist manner because that was the intended meaning, even though I might not agree with it. Who do you think was right-me or my professor?



I have translated a lot of articles referring to Chinese organizations, and I always resent having to type "People's Liberation Army" and "Municipal People's Court" and things like that, as if I have had to sign up as a supporter of the Chinese government. Terms for public bodies such as the Army and the Courts should not be loaded in this way. They should be neutral, but it is a fact that they are not in China, and I can't do much about it.

You could argue that a "sexist" text reflected cultural differences, and that if the target audience was the US where such things would be noticed in a negative way, it might be better to alter the final text, but this not the translator's decision to make.


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Barbara Cochran, MFA  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 12:55
Spanish to English
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TOPIC STARTER
Promotion Of Ideas/Concepts/Institutions That You Don't Agree With May 15, 2007

Apparently it was very hard for my professor to accept that anyone would promote such sexist and demeaning attitudes like that in the ad I mentioned. And the issue about promoting ideologies of governments that are oppressive towards their citizens is certainly one that could be very unsettling to anyone who is democratically and liberal-minded. Thanks for bringing it up, David.

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Jan Sundström  Identity Verified
Sweden
Local time: 18:55
English to Swedish
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Warn the client at least! May 16, 2007

Hi all,

This is so ironical! Pretty much exactly the same ad idea was used by SAS Radisson on huge billboards here in Sweden some years ago:
http://www.thelocal.se/blog/20061129/55/

In Sweden, this kind of ads and commercials often get condemned in media, and also "sentenced" by the Council against Gender Discrimination. In this case, SAS really did get sentenced too, suits them right!
http://www.etiskaradet.org/fallningar/2006/rezidor.htm

The bottom line is:
sure, you can go ahead and translate sexist (or otherwise offensive, racist etc) content, but make sure you make the client aware that they run the risk of getting condemned/sued/sentenced in various markets, depending on the legal situation and media stance:
"Does the client really want this, or would they consider to change/tone down the message?!"

Interesting question...

/Jan


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 18:55
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
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Translate what is intended May 16, 2007

femme wrote:
My professor, who was definitely a feminist, said it would be sexist to translate it literarlly and should be translated differently.


It would be wrong to translate the text of an advertisement literally, nevermind sexist.

But I hear what your professor has in mind. She believes that insensitivities in the original text should be removed in the translation.

My answer is this: when translating anything that has a secondary nuance, ask yourself if that nuance is intended. If so, you cannot ignore it.

What you could do, is to determine the function of that (sexist) nuance, and try to come up with something similar in the target language that provides the same function.

In the case of the advertisement, you also have to take into account the accompanying picture. Your translation will have to make sense alongside that picture (even if the translation doesn't make use of the picture in the same way as the original does).

I also think one should not be too sensitive to see sexist meaning in things. From what you describe of the geisha advertisement there, I would never have thought that mention of illicit sex was ever the intention. I associate a geisha with culture in Japan, not with sex in Japan. In all propability the message of the geisha was that you will be served with great hospitality on your journey with the airline.



[Edited at 2007-05-16 12:26]


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Barbara Cochran, MFA  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 12:55
Spanish to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Don't Think That Professor Read Too Much Into It May 16, 2007

Hopefully, hospitality by the airline was the only message that the ad was trying to convey, Samuel, but I think that's doubtful because you know the old advertising maxim, "Sex Sells." It may be an "old" maxim, but all you have to do these days, too, is turn on TV especially, or read magazines to see that this sexist maxim is still alive and well.

[Edited at 2007-05-16 13:30]

[Edited at 2007-05-16 16:29]


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Brigitte Hamilton  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 11:55
Member (2007)
German to English
Translation May 16, 2007

The other thing to consider is whether the translation is culturally appropriate - sometimes it is not just a matter of being sexist, but also whether the translation will be considered culturally sound.

English-speaking audiences on the whole are more politically correct than some of their German counterparts, so what sounds okay in one language will not be well received by another.
I ran into this issue once before - I contacted the client, explained that the choice of words would likely not be well received in an English-speaking audience because such manner of talking was no longer common or accepted. I felt it was my responsibility as the native speaker to point this out, but the choice was ultimately the client's. Integrity and professionalism were the messages I tried to convey by doing this.

Of course, it depends on how offensive you consider the material at hand. If you are clearly offended, do not take the job.


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OlafK
United Kingdom
Local time: 17:55
English to German
+ ...
change it May 18, 2007

I had a very similar case in a real life situation. A sentence in a marketing text, referring to Japan, that was so clichéd and verging on racism and what's more, patronizing the reader. I was pretty sure the target readership would be offended or just laugh at it, it was so bad. It wasn't intentional, just lack of judgement (and editing). National stereotyping is much more acceptable in the UK than in Germany, so I changed it because I knew the author didn't want to offend anybody but I didn't point it out to them as I didn't want to embarrass them.

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aldazabal
English to Spanish
Sometimes, sexism is in the eye of the beholder May 22, 2007

I remember a similar airline ad, but it was not Japanese, and the stewardess was not a geisha, but an Asian woman with a traditional dress and heavy makeup. The idea was that the service given was superb, up to Asian standards and miles better than the usual European-American one. Nothing sexual whatsoever.
In any case, there remains some confusion, particularly outside Japan, about the nature of the geisha profession. Geisha are frequently depicted as expensive prostitutes in Western popular culture. Geisha are entertainers, their purpose being to entertain their customer, be it by reciting verse, playing musical instruments, light conversation, the tea ceremony. Geisha do not engage in paid sex with customers. During the Edo period, prostitution was legal and licensed by the government. Geisha were strictly forbidden from gaining a prostitution license, and were officially forbidden to have sex with their customers. Actually, a geisha is an uber-sterwardess, not a prostitute.
A geisha, therefore, is not a prostitute, but a highly regarded public relationship professional that performs a very complex ceremony, not much different from the one performed by a sumiller (wine-expert) in a select restaurant. Would your teacher have shouted "foul" if the ad had shown a good-looking male sumiller, smiling, and giving the idea of receiving a royal service? Would that be sexist?
Another different thing is the text of the ad. To begin with, I don’t think that it was originally written in Spanish, so in spite of what I am going to say, it is quite possible that the original version was sexist. That’s something I can not say. However, the Spanish translator did, in my opinion, a superb job in rendering the remark in a respectful and considerate way. When you say “hay muchas razones…” “esta es una de ellas”, esta (this) refers to one of those reasons, not to the male or female appearing in the photograph. Actually, the text (esta) would have been the same if the photograph was of a male. To sum up, esta refers to the service rendered by our stewardesses, which can be compared with that of the geisha. And the lowly opinion we may have about geishas may perfectly be based in a misunderstanding.
This is quite a long way to say that sometimes, we, translators, make a fool of ourselves considering that a text we have to translate is sexist, racist, demeaning or downright illegal, although we don’t really know the context and the circumstances of the text. Our duty, as I see it, is to offer a translation that is relevant and faithfull. We can refuse to translate a text that goes against our ethic, but we cannot change an unrespectful text into a respectful one because we don’t like the original. Or would we translate Main Kampf into a fairy tale because the original text was shocking?


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