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Translating from languages of which you have only a passive knowledge/understanding
Thread poster: Jon O (X)

Jon O (X)  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 14:05
Dutch to English
+ ...
Dec 4, 2007

I am interested in hearing fellow translators' views/experiences of translating from languages which you don't/cannot speak and have only a passive knowledge/understanding. Obviously I appreciate this is often a matter of degree but i beg indulgence of the passive/active dichotomy for the purposes of this discussion.

My interest in this subject was stoked when I recently had to translate a passage of Frisian which was in a Dutch text I was working on.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.



Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:05
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
Do Scandinavian languages count? Dec 4, 2007

I trained in Danish, and work for regular clients translating from Swedish and Norwegian, although I don't speak either.

In Norwegian and Swedish I keep off technical texts and anything that may be critical like law - unless it is really at the level of an ordinary newspaper, i.e. a commentary or report, nothing legally valid. I sometimes have to check with my contacts (and colleagues on KudoZ) that I really have understood correctly.

Scandinavians read each other's languages fairly easily, and with practice can understand each other's spoken languages, though many find it hard work.

You have to watch out for false friends very carefully.

I think it was Tom McArthur who compared the difference between Scots and English with the differences between Scandinavian languages. (Apologies if I'm wrong.) Swedish stands out, but there are some tricky differences between the apparently very similar Danish and Norwegian Bokmaal. When it comes to the spoken language and Nynorsk, I'm often lost, even watching an English film on TV with Norwegian subtitles!

The Danish for 'quiet' means 'fun' in Swedish...
The Danish for 'pleasant' means something like 'spooky' - definitely not pleasant - in Norwegian.

Compare the children's song 'Ally bally, ally bally bee (gibberish) - the line
"Greetin' for a wee bawbee" does NOT mean 'Say hello to little Bobbyicon_biggrin.gif

There are hundreds more examples, as well as all the idiomatic expressions you can't look up in a dictionary.

On the other hand, purely as a study of how languages develop and evolve, especially with English as a sort of base at least from my point of view, it is quite fascinating. English has elements of all three - or common elements with the others, that have lived their own life in the British Isles for a thousand years, but are still clearly recognisable.

Then comes the real fun when things start going the other way, and Danish etc. absorb words from modern English.

That process has been going on for several generations in fact. And the three Scandinavian languages absorb different English words.

English is not really becoming universal. It is breaking up into lots of different languages, and it is possible to see a small-scale version of the phenomenon in Scandinavia. Whether electronic communications will slow down the differentiation or speed it up is anybody's guess.

I just enjoy working and playing with the languages. I'll be watching this topic for other comments.



Williamson  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 13:05
Flemish to English
+ ...
Transcription. Dec 4, 2007

Translation is not a kind of Harry Potter magic, but the transcription into the target-language of what is written in the source language. The target language must be perfect.
During my student days (I studied Spanish), I made so many assignments in Italian for a fellow student that I became able to read and understand the language upto the level of Il Corriere della Sera. Portuguese and Italian are so apparented with Spanish and French that I am able to read and understand the content. With the help of a good dictionary I would not hesitate to translate from those languages into Dutch or English. If there is a word I don't understand, I can always contact a native and ask the meaning.


Spencer Allman
United Kingdom
Local time: 13:05
Finnish to English
Speaking a language and translating from it are not the same thing. Dec 4, 2007

I translate Finnish, can speak it fairky well, but do not converse fleuntly.

I speak Spanish much better but would never translate from it, because I would not recognise the 'codes' in a Spanish text in the same way I automatically do in a 'Finnish one'


Margreet Logmans (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:05
English to Dutch
+ ...
Depends on how passive Dec 4, 2007

I can read most texts in Spanish and Portuguese, but would never translate from them. I can speak only very basic stuff, like hello and goodnight. I have a lot of trouble understanding radio and TV in these languages and find this very tiring.

French, I might consider. I can speak French at a tourist level (ask and understand directions, order tickets, meals, book hotels, do some shopping, etc.), but it takes a couple of days in France or in the company of French-speaking people to really get 'into the flow'. Radio and TV usually is too fast for me to follow, even if I do get the gist of what is said. If it were absolutely necessary, and the client would realise and acknowledge my level of mastery, I might translate from French. But I'd rather try to find a colleague to do it.

I find that the lessons in Latin I had in school (ages ago!) are really helpful with these languages.

German is a story in itself. I can read German, listen to it, speak German at a reasonable level (I tested C1 in the online placement test for the Goethe Institute with written text) and I do translate from it. The reason why I still consider it a passive language is that I don't like to write in German. Too many opportunities for errors.

Scandinavian languages I can read at 'guess level' and would never translate from them. As you can see, I have listed groups of related languages (Scandinavian, German, Dutch - Spanish, Portuguese, French, Latin). The more I deal with them separately, the more I gain an understanding of the set. And the greater the risk of false friends, I'm afraid.icon_frown.gif

For my own confidence and reasons of professionalism, I am studying to get a degree in all my working languages, so this listing may change in times to come.

All of the above applies to translations I would do as a job. I have translated from all of these languages for family and friends, on holidays and such. Don't think you meant to include that, did you?


José Henrique Lamensdorf  Identity Verified
Local time: 11:05
English to Portuguese
+ ...
Tourist level + thorough proofreading Dec 4, 2007

Margreet said it all: "tourist level".

I keep a "house policy" of not translating FROM any language I don't translate TO. So I waive the 3 years I studied French, as well as the 4 years I studied Italian. Spanish is out of the question, as I never attended one single class of it; just learned to speak the language quite fluently while organizing several Latin American meetings.

But one day it happened. A client of mine, who is very fond of my metrics in translation for dubbing, insisted that I should translate 8 training videos (my specialty) from French.

Bear in mind that I studied French in my teen years, and stopwatched every time I spoke it ever since: the total is about 5 hours so far. Both French and Swiss people said that I speak it "well, but in a quite amusing (drôle) way" (I can't figure out what they mean!).

So I took these 8 films, with the assurance that two proofreaders working together would go over my translation with a fine-tooth comb. Actually these two were not translators, but bilingual executive secretaries, respectively natives from France and Brazil. Afterwards they sent me their corrections (many, but much fewer than I expected), and I went over the scripts to fix metrics wherever needed.

The dubbing job came out great! But I never tried it again.


Aline Canino  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:05
Member (2007)
Chinese to French
+ ...
not so easy Dec 4, 2007

It's a question I asked myself many times, for english to french in my case.
Of course I learned english at school, I use it daily for my job but I am not sure I would be a good translator in this language just because (for me at least!) being a specialist of a language means also having a good skills of its background. Having skills in history, civilization, linguistics makes part of it, and I have no particular skills about England, I make mistakes when I write messages and it wouldn't look very professional. But it's only my opinion...
It's the same for Italian. Beacause of my father's origins, I have heard italian spoken during my childhood, but I know quite nothing about Italia.
It just help me when I am looking at a film in it's original version!


Pavel Janoušek  Identity Verified
Czech Republic
Local time: 14:05
German to Czech
+ ...
Specific texts Dec 4, 2007

I specialise in finance and financial markets, in particular. I do a lot of translations from German and English in this field, mainly press releases, market analyses and investment recommendations. One of my agency's clients is a French bank sending similar texts for translation in French. One day, the agency asked me to proofread a translation done by a coleague who translates from French. Although she speaks perfect French, her translation was so bad that I had to redo it completely. Obviously, she did not have much idea of investment and of the slang expressions used by investment experts. Since then, I have been translating the texts myself. So my answer to your question is: Yes for texts that are very specific and profound, expert knowledge of the field is required more than knowledge of the language itself. My French is definitely not excellent, but as I keep a close eye on the financial markets and know what is going on (prices falling, subprime crisis etc), I understand what they want to say. Moreover, there are tonnes of reliable reference material on the Internet that you can use if you are not sure with your translation. Of course, all this is true if your knowledge of the language is a bit more profound than knowing how to say helloicon_wink.gif


Nadja Balogh  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:05
Member (2007)
Japanese to German
+ ...
Latin is a very passive language Dec 4, 2007

I was once asked to translate a diploma written in Latin. Well, I've heard that there are people in the Vatican who can still speak it, but for most people it's a "passive" language, isn't it?

I learned it in school for about eight years, so it was great fun refreshing my memory of it and dragging out those old dictionaries for the translation.icon_smile.gif


Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 06:05
English to Spanish
+ ...
I think that may be one of the problems Dec 4, 2007

Maybe one of the problems here is that there are too many people trying to translate from languages that they do not really know; and in fact I have even seen people trying to translate INTO languages they obviously do not really know. It does not help our professional credibility.

Like José Henrique, it is my strict policy to not translate FROM any language I don't translate INTO, which means only working with those languages I know intimately, English and Spanish. No others.

On interpreting assignments people have often asked me how many languages I know. I reply, "Oh, at least 100 or more". Then I go on to explain, "yes, numerous branches of engineering, law, medicine, environmental, transportation, education, social sciences, journalism, construction, foreign relations, trade and commerce, etc., etc., but all in English and Spanish".

They get the picture. Those two languages go on forever, and I have to go on forever learning them.


liz askew  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 13:05
Member (2007)
French to English
+ ...
passive knowledge/understanding Dec 4, 2007

I wouldn't dream of translating from a "passive knowledge" position; I think it is unprofessional to do so, and could even be downright dangerous. Anybody who does not know or has not studied a language and its complexities, to at least Degree level and beyond/or equivalent, should not be translating.

Harsh, but if we want to be in the business of being professional, there it is. Also, if we want to do our clients justice, there it is too!

Liz Askew


Parrot  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:05
Spanish to English
+ ...
Define "passive" Dec 4, 2007

If "passive" means fluent reading and/or listening and having to jog one's brain in a foreign country to speak, then I think many translators are in that position.

It can also mean that a non-native language that was once active has lapsed into non-speaking status due to long absence. (Non-native languages can switch back and forth from passive to active, depending on circumstances and frequency of use. This is a process that takes years and even decades).

Both are the kind of passive knowledge one can translate from. However, if lack of speaking skills arises from, say, an insufficient learner's level, that's another thing altogether.

The AIIC has an A-B-C system whereby A is maternal/native, B is a second/active language and C is a second (or third) passive language. If you look at their directory, you'll see some of the best names in the business doing C to A.

[Edited at 2007-12-04 22:20]


Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:05
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
I'm old enough to remember 'a reading knowledge' ... Dec 4, 2007

In the days when teachers did not have electronic resources - and often very few resources at all apart from "chalk and talk" in the classroom, many students learnt a language without ever hearing a native speaker.

In fact I learnt a lot of German that way over thirty years ago. I was reading texts from Goethe to Frankfürter Allgemeine and some hard-core technology. I still enjoy Der Spiegel when I have time. The idea was to develop reading and translating skills, but for lack of time we did not practise speaking German, and I have never developed an active grasp of the grammar. I am just too slow to work it out and have never spent more than a day or two in Germany or practised speaking the language.

The same goes for my Swedish and Norwegian. I definitely study texts, watch TV with subtitles and note professionally how the language is used. I have a family of Swedish in-laws and a good collection of Swedish dictionaries besides some reasonable Norwegian-English ones.

I only ever translate into English. I have lived more than half my life in Denmark. Danish is my second native language, and if I don't choose to reveal my nationality, I can pass for a Dane in most normal situations. But I do not write the language to professional standards, and it takes me too long to proofread. I have more than enough to translate into English... so I do not practise writing Danish, or I could probably have worked it up with a determined effort.

Even in one's native language, everyone has a far larger passive vocabulary than active, and people understand registers and jargon or literature and poetry and areas of the language that they would never use actively.

With the advantages of living in Scandinavia with cable TV that is subtitled but not dubbed, books and broadband at my fingertips, and by now years of experience, I know my limitations more or less, and have no qualms about translating from passive languages. Translating from a language and speaking it are different disciplines.

On the other hand I have studied French at degree level too. It was my first foreign language (I started at age 7). I loved it and used to speak it quite fluently, but have never seriously practised translating from French. There is a language I don't mess with! It sounds awful when I read it through next day!


[Edited at 2007-12-05 07:31]


sylvie malich
Local time: 14:05
German to English
Hear! hear! Dec 5, 2007

liz askew wrote:

I wouldn't dream of translating from a "passive knowledge" position; I think it is unprofessional to do so, and could even be downright dangerous. Anybody who does not know or has not studied a language and its complexities, to at least Degree level and beyond/or equivalent, should not be translating.

Harsh, but if we want to be in the business of being professional, there it is. Also, if we want to do our clients justice, there it is too!

Liz Askew

Finally. I thank you for expressing what I've been thinking.


Irene N
United States
Local time: 07:05
English to Russian
+ ...
This is so true Dec 5, 2007

Henry Hinds wrote:

Maybe one of the problems here is that there are too many people trying to translate from languages that they do not really know

Translation from a passive language even into a native one often ends up being an interlinear translation at best. I can't stop wondering why some natives I've met in my life (present company excluded, honestly) seem to forget that they are talking to the audience speaking the same language and put a tremendous effort into translating every word contained in the excessively wordy or poorly written Russian. Apparently with passive knowledge only they must have been scared to death to deviate by a micron from the original.

Here is what I mean, and this is in fact the best case scenario with no actual errors.

An excerpt from the correspondence:

By a native (exactly as it reads in Russian and, striclty speaking, a 100% accurate translation):

It is quite possible that in this case the necessity will arise to execute a separate agreement between the parties, which shall be valid for previous fiscal periods.

By me:
This may require a separate agreement between the parties to cover previous fiscal periods.

Tell me if I did indeed corrupt the original.

Here goes the claim that English output is normally 1/3 longer than Russian. Of course, an interlinear translation increased by the articles will produce a better word count:-)

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