Off topic: Translating for a competition without any previous knowledge of the SL
Thread poster: Christopher Smith

Christopher Smith  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 06:06
Member (2011)
French to English
+ ...
Aug 16, 2013

Hello everyone,

This is perhaps a slightly esoteric post. The idea just popped into my head and I was wondering what the wider community would think of this.

I often see postings for translation competitions outside of my language pairs and I often feel like taking part, just for fun, to see how I do. The allure of doing this, to me at least, is learning something new, whether it be the rudiments of an unfamiliar language or getting to work with an interesting text. The "competition" aspect is just something extra. Of course, whether it's actually a "good" translation is another matter entirely...

Have any of you entered a language competition in this way just for fun, to test your skills as a "translator" rather than an expert in whichever language? Seeing as it's an open competition, would any of you find yourselves in some kind of ethical quandary, simply because you're not an expert? Do you think there's more to being a translator than just a solid knowledge of another language?


Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 23:06
English to Spanish
+ ...
No Sense Aug 16, 2013

It makes no sense to attempt translating from a language you don't know, although I'm sure many people here bill themselves as being able to translate from and even into languages they don't know. The more they claim to know, the more evident that becomes.


United States
Member (2009)
German to English
+ ...
Go for it! Aug 16, 2013

I think it could be an enjoyable exercise, and of course there's far more to being a translator than having a sound knowledge of the source language. I've edited translations from languages of which I have only a hazy grasp - with the client's knowledge, of course. And I remember once going to a lecture by a prominent translator of poetry who worked from languages she didn't know, liaising closely with the author.

I'm not sure I'd have the nerve to actually submit a competition entry, unless it were anonymous. There's too much scope for making a fool of yourself.


Łukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz  Identity Verified
Local time: 07:06
English to Polish
+ ...
FTW! Aug 16, 2013

Oh, Christopher, don't I understand how you feel! I've translated on a couple of occasions from languages I don't actually know, usually the rural Latin they speak around the Med in modern times, but once about a time a translation agency came with something in Dutch. That was fun. Kinda like, 'well, we know it's not your language... but if anybody can figure it out, it's gotta be you.' And I did.

Do you think there's more to being a translator than just a solid knowledge of another language?

Actually, I believe the 'more than' mindset to be a little dangerous. Source, target, equivalence, correctness, good writing, what else is translation 'more than'?icon_wink.gif

And I'm especially mad at philologists and other linguists for downplaying the importance of actually knowing the language, all the time. The result is dudes with Master's degrees translating stuff they haven't figured out for real, or murdering Kate's English or whatever else it is they're murdering.

But a competition is not a serious client job. You wouldn't be translating legal contracts. And you could always whack everybody and his dog on the head with the announcement that you didn't actually know the language and still won. That'd be cool to watch.

Anyway, GL HF!

[Edited at 2013-08-16 16:11 GMT]


Helen Hagon  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:06
Member (2011)
Russian to English
+ ...
Why not? Aug 16, 2013

I must admit I have been tempted to do something similar on several occasions in the past. I know quite a bit of German, but not really enough to translate it professionally. However, as a purely intellectual exercise, I have often considered entering a competition for translating German into English. It would be a lot of fun, and it would give me a huge sense of achievement. So far, though, I have not plucked up the courage to do it. Yet.

I've never thought about attempting it in a language I didn't know at all, but it's an interesting thought. I have occasionally had to attempt to decipher words or phrases in a language I didn't know, and found it fascinating. If you are already a translator, and find other languages interesting, then I suppose it could be a highly informative and educational experience.


José Henrique Lamensdorf  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:06
English to Portuguese
+ ...
Without ANY previous knowledge??? Aug 16, 2013

I don't see that being possible.

I can immediately recognize a text in Turkish, by the abusive use of C-cedillas, including as the first letter in many words. Though we have them in Portuguese, they are never the first letter, unlike French, which parsimoniously uses "ça". I can't figure one single word in Turkish, not even if the text is side-by-side with its translation into a language I know. That's what I consider "without any previous knowledge".

I discovered that my knowledge of PT, IT, FR, and ES enables me to read and grasp most of texts in Catalan and Rheto-Romance. Is it the Latin root? Not so sure... I had parents-in-law for 15 years who spoke Romanian, and all that didn't help any in understanding it. When I traveled to Italy with my first wife, my high school Italian was great for communication, however surprisingly, all the words I hadn't learned were identical in IT and RO.

Once I had to translate a birth certificate from New Zealand. It was bilingual, in both English and Maori. On the label "Sex", Maori used THREE words. My best guess is that it explained how it is done, what goes where, etc. No chance for me to figure out what these words meant.

So I don't think it would be possible to translate from any language without having at least some associated knowledge.

I would definitely try my skills in a contest that involved translating from languages I didn't study enough to do it professionally, just to give it a try. In fact, I did once translate 8 videos from FR for dubbing, however I had highly qualified editing afterwards. It's sad that I never had a chance to try my skill translating from IT, which I studied more and speak better than FR.

However the saddest thing is that I see people translating "professionally" from EN in spite of commanding it worse than I do in IT/FR.


Phil Hand  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:06
Chinese to English
Using what informants? Aug 17, 2013

Phil above mentioned poetry, and I've talked to poets who do it by using translator informants - it's standard practice at a place called, I think, the Literary Translation Centre. But those informants are vital. They offer both literal translations and a sense of how and why the poem works, and the poet-translator then produces a good English poem out of it.

The worry would be if you tried to do it using MT or without decent informants. What would you be translating, exactly? A vague sense of the content of the ST, but not a real reading of it. I don't think that could work.

I say try anything once (incest and country dancing excepted, as you know), but be aware of why you're doing it. If you're trying to exercise your skills, great. If you're trying to show up translators who you don't think "get it", well, is that a positive use of your time?


neilmac  Identity Verified
Local time: 07:06
Spanish to English
+ ...
Not recommended for mere mortals Aug 17, 2013

Once upon a time, after a lot of cajoling by a desperate client, I translated a text for him on fruit-growing from Italian, although I've never studied it and don't speak it. However, he convinced me that it was similar enough to my main source language Spanish and his native French and I reluctantly went ahead.

I almost got caught out translating "meló" as "melon" (it's an apple or apple tree, I don't recall now which), but the rest of it was more or less okay and they published it in the client's magazine. However, it's not something I would do every day, although I might make an exception for a competition on the odd occasion.


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