Translation Challenges: What to do When Items Don’t Translate

Science and math have an advantage when it comes to translation. Most of the signs, symbols, and lexemes associated with these fields are relatively universal. Other fields, especially the arts, are not nearly so fortunate. Translation becomes increasingly difficult if literary elements such as meter, verse, or rhyming are included in the source text, or if there are specific sounds associated with a culture.

When Sounds are Not Sounds

Many people are not aware that the sounds they hear and make every day do not translate from language to language or culture to culture. For example, in English a cat says, “meow”, a dog says, “woof, woof”, a donkey says, “hee haw”, and a duck says, “quack, quack”. These simple sounds are found in countless examples of children’s literature and are incorporated into marketing campaigns, advertisements, and the like. Surprisingly, these are often not the sounds that the people of the world are familiar with.

Cats say “Nyaa” in Japanese and “miyav” in Turkish. Dogs “ouah, ouah” in French, “gua, gua” in Spanish, and “Gav, Gav” in Russian. Donkeys “A-Iiii A-Iiii” in Turkish, and ducks “rap, rap” in Danish, “coin, coin” in French, “pa, pa, pa” in Greek, “Krya, Krya” in Russian, and “cua, cua” in Spanish.

Everyday sounds are not universal, either. An English speaker may “chomp” their food while the French “Miam” the Japanese “paku paku” and the Italians “Gnam” the same delicacies. Gunshots in English may go “Bang” but “pan” in French, “bakyun” in Japanese, and “tuhh” in Estonian. The sound of crying has it’s own translation as well. “Wah” in English may be better represented as “ouin” in French or “Shikushiku” in Japanese.

The Trouble With Interjections

Interjections are more than just words. The expressions typically have pragmatic meanings that reflect cultural nuances. In addition to variances in sound, the words or phrases quite often have different uses based on conditions. For example, the English “Hey” in Spanish could be translated oye, eh, mira, esucha, ole, hala, momentito, or even hola depending on the context.

While words like “hey, right, absolutely”, or phrases such as “good Lord, for God’s sake, holy crap” might be translated literally, this would lead to major pragmatic errors. In order for interjections to be used properly, a translator must have a clear understanding of the original intent in the source language and how to effectively represent this expression with its intended meaning in the target language.

A Change in Character

There are times, most often in children’s literature, that even characters do not translate. Take, for instance, the famed English Dr. Seuss character Sam I Am from the book “Green Eggs and Ham”. One of the greatest thrills of reading Seuss is the magical rhythm and rhyme found in his verse. When translated, these elements are gone. Consider the Spanish: green eggs and ham become huevos verdes con jamón and “Sam I am” becomes “yo soy, Sam”. Therefore:

“Do you like green eggs and ham? I do not like them, Sam-I-am. I do not like green eggs and ham,” becomes ” ¿ Te gustan los huevos verdes y jamón ? No me gustan ellos, yo so Sam . No me gustan los huevos verdes con jamón.” The magic is gone.

As a result, this book, while translated literally by some, can be found with artistic alterations that bring cultural relevance and keep the rhyme. In this translation, Sam is replaced with Ramon. The verse would now read: ¿ Te gustan los huevos verdes con jamón? No, no me gustan nada, Juan Ramón. No, no me gustan nada los huevos verdes con jamón.”

This later version of the book if far more poetic. While the names have been changed, the intent of the book is preserved; however, the result is that two children of different cultures may have read the same book but would not know it from talking to each other.

What’s In a Name?

As with character names, titles of books, movies, works of art and the like are often not able to be translated directly. For example, if you asked someone in China if they had seen “The Full Monty” they may have no idea what you are talking about. However, if you asked them if they have seen “Six Naked Pigs” they might join you in happy memory of the movie. Other strange title translation in Chinese include “One Night, Big Belly” for “Knocked Up”, “A Very Powerful Whale Runs To Heaven” for “Free Willy, and “Trump Card Big Liar” for “Austin Powers”.

Chinese is not the only language that has interesting title changes to better correspond with their culture. “Full of the Nuts” was “Dodgeball” in Germany, in the Czech Republic “Bad Santa” was “Santa Is A Pervert”, and in Portugal “Skyscraper Attack” and “Airport Attack” were “Die Hard” 1 and 2.

While many of the examples in this article appear humorous on the surface, these issues are truly complex in the world of translation and must be discussed with your translation service. Do you need to have your titles translated literally or figuratively? Are there words or sounds that depend on cultural or societal subtleties to be properly understood? Will readers of your information from other countries be able to get together and have the same knowledge and understanding of your text based on the translations they received?

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