Translating for Low-level English Speakers
Thread poster: Allyson Larimer

Allyson Larimer  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 12:21
Member (Jul 2018)
Japanese to English
+ ...
Dec 20, 2011


I am a native English speaking in-house translator/interpreter for a Japanese company.

I have a dilemma. I am translating a document written by a high level Japanese executive to supervisors in our manufacturing plant in the U.S. (J>E). The exec is very old and writes in a academic style using very big words. This is not a problem for me. However, a few weeks ago when he came to the plant and I interpreted for him, I noticed that the plant operators and supervisors, native English speakers most of whom only graduated high school, had a hard time understanding me when I interpreted what he was saying at the same register. So, now that I am translating a document he wrote to them, I am concerned that he is writing at a level they can't understand.

I remember when I went through interpreter training that we were told that it was only ok to change register if you thought the listener didn't understand and to check with the speaker first to make sure your understanding of what they were saying was correct before you tried to, for lack of a better word, "dumb it down". Is there a similar guideline for translation or is the rule always to translate in the same register even when you know it is written above the level of the target audience?

Also, has anyone else had trouble interpreting for lower-educated native speakers (of any language)? I would love to hear about your experiences. It is really strange to know that you are speaking your native language to someone else who speaks the same language and your message is not getting through.

Thanks for any help you can offer.



Russell Jones  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 17:21
Italian to English
Similar considerations Dec 20, 2011

I am often aware that my translations are not intended for native English speakers but for anyone who doesn't understand Italian, treating English as a lingua franca, so I need to be careful with idiomatic expressions and less common words or phrases, irrespective of the original register.

Surely your role here is to act as cultural mediator, tending towards the currently preferred register of Plain English, drawing on Anglo-Saxon terms in preference to those of Latin or Greek origin, especially for a translation that is to be delivered verbally.


B D Finch  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:21
Member (2006)
French to English
+ ...
Consult the client Dec 20, 2011

It seems to me that the ideal thing to do would be to explain the problem to the Japanese executive concerned in a way that flatters him for the educated and refined way he speaks and writes, while expressing regret at the lower educational level of the target readers/listeners. The aim should be to get his permission to lower the register in the target language, while he is able to continue to express himself in a manner that he feels comfortable with.


Phil Hand  Identity Verified
Local time: 00:21
Chinese to English
Translate to communicate Dec 20, 2011

I run into this problem all the time. Sometimes it's "level of education", sometimes it's just differences in style. My current assignment involves a lot of managers talking to engineers. The engineers are generally after yes/no answers, and the managers are determined not to give them (I'm playing up the stereotype, but that really is how it happens quite often!).
In these situations I always adapt to the listener, and I've never had a client complain about it. I find there's generally a balance which can be found between making sure that the core message gets across (with simplified/direct language where necessary) and conveying the style of the speaker in the other parts of the speech.
(In any case, in my pair - as in yours, I assume - I do quite a lot of juggling of directness/indirectness. There are perfectly polite questions in Chinese that just sound rude in English, and vice versa, and I manoeuvre around these as a natural part of conversational interpreting. I don't think it's too much of a stretch to juggle some of the semantic content to make sure that the message is crystal clear.)
In translation it can be more of a struggle, because writers often like to see their every word preserved. But there's plenty of translation theory to back up adaptation to target norms (I'm a fan of skopos theory, myself). And commercially, if you're in-house, it's pretty normal to carve out a communications role that goes slightly beyond pure translation of the words. Whenever I've spent more than a few days with a client, I've always ended up taking on some responsibility for terminology, tone, even communication strategies. It'd be a pretty paranoid company that refused to allow their professional communicator to use her abilities to the fullest!
In terms of how you go about it, I agree with B D Finch - talk, flatter, demonstrate why what you're suggesting is necessary.


Yuji Nakamoto
Local time: 01:21
English to Japanese
Complicated Arrangement in Translation Dec 21, 2011

Every translator keeps it in mind that he or she should certify who are readers for the translated work.Unless otherwise we should pay attention to TPO(Time, Place,Opportunity),the translation work would get into weird bizarre expressions.
Generally speaking,Japanese executive persons tend to use polite,formal,old expressions in their business scenes.So I don't think those expressions by the Japanese executive should transform into easier expressions for workers who are less educated.
But the problem referred by allyson is that such highly complicated expressions can't be understood by workers in the rank and file.In case that workers can't understand the speech by exectutives ,the translation means nothing but wasting, meaningless.That's a potential quagmire in translation not only in Japanese business but also in American.


Kaiya J. Diannen  Identity Verified
Member (2008)
German to English
Basically what B D said Dec 22, 2011

Is there a similar guideline for translation or is the rule always to translate in the same register even when you know it is written above the level of the target audience?

Normally our job as a translator is to render the original source text in the target text "as is" with equivalent register, etc. - anything else can lead to accusations of inaccurate translation, and possibly even violate ethics codes.

[For example, the Australian Institute of Interpreters and Translators Inc states in its Code of Ethics: "Interpreters and translators shall not alter, make additions to, or omit anything from their assigned work." - I don't think it's too far-fetched to think that someone out there would say that changing the register is "alteration"]

On the other hand, it seems obvious that you have a valid concern with your client's best interests at heart, and IMHO this should be expressed.

Basically, I agree with what BD said, the only thing I recommend is perhaps not using the word "problem" but mentioning it more as a "potential issue". In the end, it is and should be up to the client, but we can certainly give them the benefit of our knowledge and experience to help them make these important decisions.


Fouad El karnichi  Identity Verified
Local time: 12:21
Arabic to English
+ ...
show your agency and your expertise as as intercultural mediator Dec 23, 2011

Your boss's aim is to have his message clearly understood. The more the staff understand and retain his messages in either the spoken(interpreting) or written (translation) medium forms.The better they understand , the better the outcome or even the impact will be. I doubt the chief executive would oppose to that. He is a business man , after all. You will be doing , in this situation, the role of a mediator and your your agency as a language mediator (show OPENLY what you worth) . Further, there is no harm making this clear to the boss. You are representing a profession. Professions are respected in society. So is Linguists. You may then tell your client(boss), in your capacity as an expert in intercultural mediation, that the adaptation strategy is the ideal solution for that message delivery. If he says anything against it (which I doubt he will) give the back translation file for him to cross check.

Take care


Kaiya J. Diannen  Identity Verified
Member (2008)
German to English
But ask first Dec 23, 2011

Russel Jones:
Surely your role here is to act as cultural mediator, tending towards the currently preferred register of Plain English

Fouad El karnichi wrote:
You will be doing , in this situation, the role of a mediator and your your agency as a language mediator (show OPENLY what you worth) . Further, there is no harm making this clear to the boss.

"The role of mediator" is a nice added bonus - it's just not our role as translators. I can't pretend to know what challenges interpreters regularly face or how their codes of ethics and practice may differ, but the translator has an obligation to reproduce the source text and its register unless told otherwise (with obvious allowances for idiomatic expressions that vary from language to language).

The trick is to be "told otherwise". I think most of us agree that it in this situation, ideally the translation could be "adapted" so that the intended audience actually understands the message.

The important thing to keep in mind is that, once recognized, this is not our independent decision to make. If not "told otherwise", we first must take steps to be "told otherwise" - and that means asking first. Persuading, discussing, demonstrating, cajoling - whatever the action is, it must be taken before the translator simply "alters" the translation (see previous post).


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