One of the article subjects suggested in the “Call for Articles” section was “Naturalness in Translation”, something that has always seemed to me just... natural, especially if you are translating into your native language. My recent experience as a proofreader for an agency has shown, however, that for many people this is a problem – unfortunately though, not the only one. I therefore take the liberty to submit the following remarks for your consideration. My proofreading activities concern the English-to-Czech pair; to make my various points understandable to a maximum of people, however, I will endeavour, whenever possible, to provide examples in French English. If not stated otherwise, the examples below come from translations I have completed over the last few months (although not always in the same pair).
This article was supposed to contain a section about legal translation – I found out, however, that I had too much to say on the subject, and I will therefore leave it for a separate article, provided this one attracts enough attention to make it worthwhile.
Right at the beginning, I would like to make it clear that I have no formal translation education, so I won’t use any technical terms beyond high-school level, thus making – I hope – my explanations accessible to a broad range of readers. The method I have always used over my 24 years of professional translating activities – with some success – is common sense, and that is the very first quality any translator needs.
Good news for you: if you are worrying about your translations not sounding natural enough, it means you can tell the difference, and you are seeking to improve your work – and therefore you undoubtedly will. I hope my comments – based on the most common mistakes I have seen – and/or made – will help you in this endeavour.
Don’t try to translate things that already exist in the target language – find them and copy. The Internet is a powerful tool, and many texts submitted for translation are far from original, you can find very similar ones in your target language; in particular, if and when the target is not your mother tongue, what you find will very likely be better than what you could do.
Translate meaning, not words. Very often, word-by-word translation makes no sense, or at least is very awkward.
When you have completed your translation and checked that all is there that should be there, read it again as a text in the target language, with no more reference to the source, and adjust it to make it sound natural. To be able to do that, of course, you need to have a good command of the target language – which seems not to be the case even with some people’s mother tongue. Reading a lot is an efficient manner to acquire it – in your native language and more so in other languages; in your reading, pay attention to expressions and idioms (supposing you are already sure of your spelling and grammar). When translating into foreign languages, it is useful to have native proofreaders – and they only need to read the target, with no reference to the source, provided your translation is good enough for them to understand. But they need to be educated people – not any native speaker will do!
Be Sure of Your Understanding
Before worrying about “naturalness”, you need to have your facts right – it seems to be a matter of course, but, alas, often isn’t. “False friends” are a well-known phenomenon between English and French (and in many other pairs where both languages share a common base), but they also exist in English (or French) to Czech. “Statutory” really is not “statutární” (or “statutaire” in French, either), and you cannot translate “pathetic” as “patetický”, as we so often hear on TV.
Common sense is your first (although not always sufficient) tool: does the translated sentence make sense? Is it consistent with the context? If the message seems too surprising, there is probably a snag. I remember a colleague translating from Hungarian to Czech, who had, in a newspaper article, a quote by a Hungarian politician, saying about a colleague of his: “... azt asztalta, ő bakra felülnie, és mi lovak lennénk.” (sorry to our Hungarian colleagues if I misspelled something). Her first translation was “... wants to sit on a he-goat, and wants us to be horses.” As she used common sense, this rather astonishing revelation intrigued her. The question to be asked is: what is the strangest thing in this sentence? OK, everything, but the most uncanny image seems to be that of a person sitting on a goat, so the first word to be looked for other meanings of is “bak”. (It is the driver’s seat of a horse wagon.)
Another logical check: does your hypothesis about the meaning fit the grammatical structure of the sentence (= the relationship between its different parts) in all points? A colleague translating from French to Czech, but whose main working languages were Russian and German, faced the following sentence: “[Name] a quelque mal à maîtriser ses troupes.” Her understanding was “... counted his dead bodies several times.” (I am afraid you need to know at least some basics of all the languages involved to understand how she came to that conclusion.) Surprisingly enough, it was not the content that worried her, but the preposition “à” that didn’t fit her hypothesis, so that this scoop was mercifully not released to the Czech media.
This is less of a problem between English and French, as their sentence-structuring rules are similar – with some exceptions, of course. But in Czech (and in other Slavic languages), the order of words is governed by a rule that I called “from the obvious to the surprising” when I taught Czech to a native English speaker. The main point of the sentence should always be at the end. Let’s take an example at random, from a Clinical Trial Agreement:
Investigator is responsible for ensuring that all personnel participating in the Study comply with the terms of this Agreement, excluding personnel supplied by CRO or Sponsor.
The point of this sentence is “comply with the terms of this Agreement”, so that in Czech, it must be put at the end. It is possible to divide the sentence into units that you can then reshuffle until the sentence sounds natural in Czech:
Investigator is responsible for ensuring / that all personnel participating in the Study / comply with the terms of this Agreement / excluding personnel supplied by CRO or Sponsor
Let’s translate the individual bits:
Zkoušející zajistí, aby / všichni pracovníci podílející se na klinickém hodnocení / dodržovali podmínky této smlouvy / kromě pracovníků poskytnutých smluvní výzkumnou organizací a zadavatelem
For a start, please note that “Investigator is responsible for ensuring” is not translated word-by-word, and that pre-defined terms are not capitalized in Czech (to be further discussed in an article about Legal translation issues). Here, the reshuffling is quite simple: “comply with...” goes to the end, and “excluding personnel...” must be next to “that all personnel...”, as it states an exception to this definition, so that interchanging the last two bits does the trick:
Zkoušející zajistí, aby / všichni pracovníci podílející se na klinickém hodnocení / kromě pracovníků poskytnutých smluvní výzkumnou organizací a zadavatelem / dodržovali podmínky této smlouvy.
In many cases, of course, things will be much more complicated, but it must be done if you want your sentences to be understandable and to sound natural. In the opposite direction, you must do the opposite – i.e., arrange the sentence in its grammatical order. Of course, there is more than one way of turning out a sentence in each of the languages involved, but if you aren’t sure of your footing, keep it simple. Then you add the punctuation according to the target language rules – keeping the punctuation of the source is mostly incorrect. Let’s try it the other way around:
Při úpravě dávky podle tohoto postupu nebyly po podání jedné dávky přípravku XXX s upraveným pH pacientovi nahlášeny žádné vedlejší účinky ani interakce.
Dividing the sentence:
Při úpravě dávky podle tohoto postupu / nebyly / po podání jedné dávky přípravku XXX / s upraveným pH / pacientovi / nahlášeny / žádné vedlejší účinky ani interakce.
Translating the bits:
When adjusting the dose by this procedure / weren’t / after administering one dose of XXX / with adjusted pH / to a patient / reported / no adverse effects or interactions
The “adverse effects...” is the subject of this sentence, let’s start with that:
no adverse effects or interactions
The double negative in Czech cannot be used in English, so “weren’t” becomes “were”. And they weren’t reported, so:
no adverse effects or interactions / were / reported
In English, we will say rather “upon administering” and will be more specific – “a single dose”. “With adjusted pH” qualifies the product “XXX”, so that it should be next to it, but doesn’t sound natural – we can do better in English: “pH-adjusted XXX”. The “administering” was done “to a patient”, and the qualifying phrase goes to the end, or alternatively to the beginning:
No adverse effects or interactions / were / reported / upon administering a single dose of pH-adjusted XXX / to a patient / when adjusting the dose by this procedure.
Or When adjusting..., no adverse effects...
Then it is possible to find a synonym to avoid the double usage of the verb “adjust” etc.
The reshuffling is then more complicated than in the first example.
This looks like a lot of work, but you will do it in your head in split seconds after a while – at least, I do.
Do not feel obliged to use the same number of words, noun for noun, verb for verb, or the same tense of verbs. For example: in French, you will generally have infinitives all over the place – in titles, to-do lists, manuals... But usage is different in other languages.
As a title:
Mettre l’appareil sous tension = Turning the Device On = Zapnutí přístroje
As an instruction:
Mettre l’appareil sous tension. = Turn the device on. = Přístroj zapněte.
In English and more so in French, tense is often dictated by grammatical rules (especially in conditional sentences), while we use “logical” tenses in Czech – referring to the time when the action actually happened, is happening, will happen...
If there is no multi-site publication within eighteen (18) months after the Study has been completed…, the Site shall have the right to publish its results from the Study...
Nebude-li multicentrická publikace vydána do 18 měsíců po dokončení klinického hodnocení…, je řešitelské centrum oprávněno publikovat své výsledky z klinického hodnocení...
In some cases, we just think about things differently in different languages; as an example, while you improve things like productivity in English and will also use “améliorer” in French, we increase (“zvýšit”) them in Czech. So that looking back at your sentence to search for such differences will often improve your naturalness quite a lot.
Such differences are especially important when the cultural gap between the source and target is wide, as our colleagues translating Asian languages for example will undoubtedly confirm. This used to be the case in Communist countries: I remember a colleague who got a big laugh when she introduced a man at a meeting as “Camarade le Président du Comité National Municipal” (Comrade Chairman of the Town’s Popular Council). Yes, that was the word-by-word translation of his title, but I used to say “Monsieur le maire” (the Mayor) in such cases, because, in practice, that is what he was. Academics will carry on about “mixing up realities” or whatever they call it, but – outside of legal context which will be discussed separately – using an equivalent from the other culture, even an approximate one, sounds more natural, and is simply much easier to understand in many cases.
Some of the old thinking still survives in our countries, and young people might wonder where it comes from. Recently, I answered a Romanian-to-English KudoZ question about “proiecte economice” – these are “business projects”. More than 20 years after our respective revolutions, we still talk about “economy” instead of “business”.
Names and qualities of people are not used in the same manner. In French: “André Dupont, Directeur Industriel de XXX”. You can say “André Dupont, XXX’s Industrial Manager” in English (and probably will when introducing him to people) and the equivalent in Czech; but, in a flowing text, it is more natural to say “XXX’s Industrial Manager André Dupont” and “výrobní ředitel XXX André Dupont,” respectively.
Especially in French (and other Latin languages, I suppose – I have certainly seen the phenomenon in Romanian), there is a habit of what I would call “flourishing language” – the more complicated the sentence, the better. If a sentence is too long, don’t hesitate to divide it into several shorter ones. Generally speaking, French has structures and expressions that you cannot translate directly into English or Czech, which are much more “matter of fact” languages. Example of a rather sober (for French) paragraph:
« Convaincu du potentiel agricole du pays, nous travaillerons en partenariat avec les agriculteurs roumains à la mise en œuvre des pratiques betteravières les plus performantes », affirme XY. Comme en République tchèque, [Company] souhaite mettre en place un véritable accompagnement des agriculteurs roumains au plan agronomique. Les axes de travail porteront notamment sur le développement de l’irrigation, l’accompagnement des planteurs dans les choix variétaux, et l’amélioration des pratiques de désherbage.
Let’s try to translate this into English. The beginning “Convaincu du potentiel agricole du pays,... ” is a typical French structure, and learning how to use it when translating into French is a great boon for making your translation sound more natural. It is possible to use the equivalent in some cases (especially with certain verbs) in English and even in Czech (Knowing that... S vědomím, že... ), but mostly the result will be awkward, so let’s modify the sentence:
“We are convinced of the country’s agricultural potential and will work in partnership with Romanian farmers, in order to implement our best beet-growing practices there,” XY says.
In the second sentence, you will find another hobby of French managers – “accompagnement”. This means helping the farmers on an ongoing basis, being on their side – here’s an idea!
As in the Czech Republic, [Company] wants to be on the Romanian farmers’ side, providing them with support in agronomy matters.
The “axes” that “portent sur” something are another favourite French cliché (one of many variants, often things revolve around them etc.), and here is our “accompagnement” again!
Our efforts will mainly focus on developing irrigation, helping farmers to choose the best suitable varieties, and to improve their weed-control methods.
These are examples, of course, and there are undoubtedly other – and probably better – ways to say the same thing. My point is that some structures and expressions are better eliminated in translation.
This doesn’t mean that “verbiage” is limited to French – just listen to politicians of any country. But you will find plenty in business, too:
The New Ventures mission is to scout profitable growth opportunities in relationships, both internally and externally, in emerging, mission-inclusive markets, and explore new paradigms and then filter and communicate and evangelize the findings. [Scott Adams: The Joy of Work, Boxtree, 2000]
This is a parody, of course. But you may have (and probably had) to deal with something very similar!
In technical matters, having the terminology right is the first important step – but the technical terms as such are not everything: there is also style and usage, and you will learn them by reading original texts about the field in the target language. Having an education in the field is, of course, a bonus. You can find plenty of documentation on the internet; when dealing with something unfamiliar for the first time, this is a useful first step to take. I am not allowed to name names, but there is a scientific journal in France dealing with a wide variety of fields, designed to teach scientific style and vocabulary to French college students – it has been very useful to me for the same purpose. Most international scientific journals (medical, for example) have their style guides available on the Internet. If dealing with business matters, read business papers, etc.
Sometimes, you have important documentation at home without always realizing it – for translating patient information leaflets, for example, you certainly have some medicines at home, and they must include PILs that you can use as templates! Or user’s manuals for your home appliances as a model for other user’s manuals... If you are translating into your mother tongue (or rather into the language of the country where you live, not always the same thing), it is likely that you have people who know the right words around you. When translating about electricity, I ask my husband who is an electrician; about power tools, my power tool repairman; about cosmetics, my local chemist’s. Do not hesitate to ask – sometimes, you may already have a phrase that is understandable, but the usual expression is different and it makes a lot of difference for sounding natural.
I do not translate IT as such, but even agricultural machinery is computer-controlled nowadays, so there is often some. Windows and associated applications now exist in most languages, and there are standard names for their features, standard messages etc. in every language. If translating into your mother tongue, you will find the right translations in your own computer – do not invent new ones!
In manuals, refer to any pictures or charts available (or find more on the net) to understand the text – and then explain what is to be done in a comprehensible manner; if necessary, in your own words. Of course you do? OK, I just found out that some people don’t look at pictures, surprisingly enough.
When writing for a “knowledgeable” target group, technical people often use shortcuts, and you need to complement some information in order to make the translated text understandable. If you don’t know enough about the field, Internet research will help you.
Si Cruiser a été utilisé en betteraves ou pour d’autres cultures en 2011 ou 2012, le traitement Cruiser SB sur betteraves ne pourra pas être utilisé sur ces mêmes parcelles pour les semis 2013.
Cruiser is an insecticide; on sugar beet, it is used for seed coating. “Utilisé en betteraves” or “traitement Cruiser SB sur betteraves” means, therefore, that Cruiser-coated seed was – or can be – sown. This advice is given to farmers who know Cruiser; on the other hand, no scientific style is called for. The source’s passive voice can be used in English in this case, but is better avoided in Czech:
Wherever Cruiser was used on sugar beet or other crops in 2011 or 2012, Cruiser-SB-coated seed may not be used for the 2013 drilling in the same fields.
Pokud jste Cruiser použili na řepu nebo jiné plodiny v roce 2011 nebo 2012, nemůžete na stejných pozemcích použít k výsevu v roce 2013 osivo řepy ošetřené přípravkem Cruiser.
Every language has its letter-writing habits, and you must respect them when translating letters. Good news: in most languages, you will find template letters on the Internet – if you aren’t an experienced letter-writer in the target language, you’d better do so.
Between Czech and English, there is not much to worry about – some differences in the layout, capitalization, ”Ty” or “Vy” when translating into Czech, “Yours sincerely” or ”Yours faithfully” when into English. It is useful to learn a few clichés like “at your convenience” and similar.
French is another matter altogether. While business letters in France tend to be reasonably simple these days, there are still letters to government agencies, between legal professions etc. – and the more olde-worlde customs of French-speaking Africa, for example (judging from the little I have seen of it; my favourite quote from an African business letter: “Je prends la liberté de solliciter votre auguste personne…”). Guides exist both in hard copy and on the net – this is difficult even for native speakers. Find a good guide, learn the basics, and keep it on hand for future reference. It will help you to translate letters into French, but also the opposite – to avoid worrying about phrases that have no meaning.
Je prends la liberté de solliciter votre haute bienveillance… = I am writing to…
Je vous prie, Monsieur, d’agréer l’expression de ma très haute considération = Yours sincerely
The only exception when such phrases will be translated into English or Czech is diplomatic correspondence.
A Few Thoughts about Journalism And Literature
Generally speaking, English and especially French journalism uses richer and more expressive language than Czech journalism, so that translating on the same “level” is not necessarily the best choice. Most English or French articles must be toned down when translated into Czech in order to sound natural, and Czech articles can use some “embellishing” (or complete rewriting) when translated into English and especially into French (for publication). There are, of course, enormous differences between various kinds of media.
Here are some examples taken at random from a single number of Le Point [2109, 14/03/2013], the Czech (and in some cases English) translation of which – if done image-for-image, level-for-level – would range from strange through crazy to downright unacceptable:
- Pas question de décrocher par rapport à nos partenaires de la zone euro qui sont plus ou moins logés à la même enseigne. … La Cour n’y va pas par quatre chemins.
- Le pouvoir régional se lèche les babines.
- [about cardinals] Sans doute en avaient-ils soupé des tournées hallucinantes de Karol Wojtyla, ce pape rock star à la carrure de bûcheron qui n’avait jamais froid aux yeux, bousculait les tyrannies et réveilla l’Église avec son célèbre : « N’ayez pas peur ! ».
There is worse: in a recent TV panel discussion [TV5 monde, 04/03/2013, On n’est pas couchés], the anchor person asked his Minister of Education:
Pensez-vous que les profs français sont emmerdés de bosser une demi-journée de plus ?
Now, I don’t know whether an equivalent of this would be considered acceptable in any English-speaking country, but a Czech journalist using such language on air – moreover, to a member of his government – would be most certainly fired.
Let’s look at a random example of Czech journalism [Právo, 2-3 March, 2013]:
Ceny plynu a elektřiny rostly v Česku v posledních dvanácti letech v součtu nejrychleji z celé Evropské unie. Vyplývá to alespoň z údajů Evropského statistického úřadu (Eurostat).
A dry statement of fact, in short sentences. In English, I would at least merge the sentences:
According to recent Eurostat data, gas and electricity prices in the Czech Republic have been growing at the fastest rate among EU countries over the last twelve years.
How would a French journalist go about conveying the same fact? He/she would probably write something on the lines of:
Salée, votre facture d’énergie ? Eh bien, ce n’est pas qu’une impression – voici qu’Eurostat vient d’entériner votre sentiment : Où que l’on regarde en Europe, c’est en République tchèque que les prix du gaz et de l’électricité se sont le plus emballés sur les douze dernières années.
Before anyone accuses me: I am NOT inviting you to go as far out on a branch as that, certainly not without your client’s consent!
The question of “level” is an interesting one. English is a language that can be more “level-neutral” than the other two, but, on the other hand, can show level differences – especially on the “upper side” of the scale – that cannot be really matched in Czech, and I am not sure about French – as one of my favourite dialogues shows:
“I’LL CUT YER TONKER OFF’F YER YER GREASY – Oh, is that you, Sir Samuel?”
“Indeed, sir.” The butler straightened up.
“Do excuse me one moment, sir. KNOCK IT OFF YOU MOTHERLOVIN SONS OF BITCHES I had no apprehension of your presence, sir.”... [Terry Pratchett: Jingo, Corgi Books, 1998]
In Czech, we have what is called a “spoken form of the language” with different suffixes and a few other differences from the written language, and even educated people will look affected if they use literary language in normal conversation. But on TV, in many translated series, everybody speaks the literary form, unless they really, but really speak some kind of slang in the source! This is NOT natural. In my opinion, the question to be asked is “what they would be likely to say in the target language?”
In literature, I believe that naturalness is more important than accuracy, provided you get the main idea across. My following examples come from a recent ProZ contest: I cannot see any point in translating verbatim the phrase “Krali Marko” if, in the context, it just means “somebody else” and sounds strange in English. The same goes for “making pants for a flea” – it really doesn’t matter what kind of pants, the idea is “doing something very fiddly”. Some reviewers seemed outraged by my “mistranslations” – I still believe my choice was the right one.
Sounding natural should not be difficult for a translator translating into their native language – provided they are well-read and use common sense. Just think about the purpose of the text – if it is a user’s manual, the user must understand what to do, and the words you use to explain it may be different from the source. Look at your translation as a text in the target language, and then rewrite it to sound natural. This is more difficult in a foreign language, but it can be done – you just need to read, and read, and read...
I would like to thank my own proofreaders Paul Morris and Jean-Noël Collet for their input.