Thursday, 5 June 2014

Mind The Gap - Living And Working Between Languages

I became a translator because I love languages.
I especially love the balancing act of getting a message in one language and relaying it in another language. It's a wonderful feeling when you get it just right. When you know that these words convey exactly the meaning you want. Yes, it happens, sometimes.

And sometimes a word or a concept in one language just doesn't fit neatly into the words of the other language. There is no equivalent. You can't translate, you need to think again, think differently.

As an example, we do not have a word for please in Finnish. Yes, there are ways of asking for things nicely and politely: "May I have..." or "Could I have..." But there is no single word that translates please.

Thank you,!
The result is that it's hard for a Finn learning English to remember to say please. She thinks she's asking politely when she says "May I have a drink?" because that's how it works in her own language. And the native English speaker waits for the please and gets the impression that the Finnish person is a bit abrupt, impolite, clumsy. "Didn't her mother teach her manners, like we teach our little ones to say please?"

(After 35 years of learning English as a second language, I think I've learned to remember saying please. Now I'm the one getting antsy if someone forgets to use it. I'll do my best to teach it to my son as he is learning English...)

Another example. We Finns don't say he and she. We have only one third person singular pronoun that goes for both genders: hän. So, if you have a Finnish text that speaks about the protagonist only as "hän" and nothing indicates the sex of this person, it's awfully difficult to translate it into English. If you start translating with he and after a while it turns out the text is talking about a woman, you have to go through everything again and fix all the pronouns. (And what if the text is purposefully written to be gender-neutral? How do you do it in English??)

Incidentally, this is also one more thing a Finnish learner of English finds hard. Because you suddenly need to start thinking differently. You have only one pronoun in your existing system, but now you need to remember to use a different word depending on the person you are talking about.

But I'm a translator because I enjoy the challenges of navigating the no man's land between languages and learning its pitfalls. I can never be entirely sure that I know all the cultural contexts, connotations and implications of my words, especially in my acquired languages. But it's OK as long as I'm aware of this and tread carefully, minding the gap. There is always more to learn, and sometimes we learn the hard way.

And sometimes you can get a good laugh from the gap. Like when I read Oliver Lutz Radke's books: Chinglish: Found in Translation and Chinglish 2: Speaking In Tongues.

Chinglish, as Radke defines it, is English words and Chinese grammar, reflecting a Chinese way of thinking.
Sometimes, it's poetry found in translation, like the sign which is apparently in a protected natural area:
"A rock longs for permanence
And a plant yearns love care"

Sometimes, the translation ends up with entirely garbled meaning, such as "Slip carefully."

But Radke is not collecting these in order to mock the Chinese translators' mistakes. It's because he's fascinated with what happens when there is a gap between two languages and cultures, and you can sort of see the Chinese thought behind the English words. Translations such as "Slip carefully" happen because Chinese grammar is different; the Chinese characters convey the message "be careful so you don't slip", but they do not need so many words to express it and the word order may also be different.

But sometimes awful (and funny) things happen because computer translation systems, such as Google Translate, cannot bridge the gap. When there are several possible meanings for a word, depending on the context, and the computer suggests the wrong alternative for this context, and there is no one to correct it before it's in print.

Not to mention the results of simple typing errors. You can guess what happens to a restaurant menu when someone accidentally spells 'crab' with a 'p'.

It's also an unfortunate fact that some words are similar, yet far apart in meaning. Like inconvenience and incontinence.

If language humour like this is your cup of tea, there is a lot more in and
(For the latter link, at least, I guess I should warn that there is a lot of unfortunate 'language' and innuendo. Like the example with crabs above. And worse. Much worse. Let's just say that by reading I have also increased my knowledge of American slang expressions. And I also wonder: where did someone get the text for this?
And what made someone think that stationery like this is a good idea?)

Mind the gap - and enjoy the trip between languages. You never know what you'll find there.


  1. This is amazing! Saw your comment on MMD and hopped over. I love that you are in another country! (Sweden?) I just met a girl from Belgium at a festival and I'm quite excited for the park date we have planned for the kids! I'm hoping she can help me learn a bit of French (as she is from South Belgium, where French is dominate). :)

    1. Thanks for stopping by!
      We live in Finland. Right next door to Sweden :)