Things I learnt from a journo about translating culture-specific terms: (1) Description trumps linguistic solutions

file9031251141336The final talk at the METM14 conference held recently in Madrid was an interesting and entertaining one by journalist Martin Roberts.

Martin had a lot to say about terminology, especially about translating culture-specific terms (i.e., terms with no close equivalents in the target language), which we learnt is as important for foreign correspondents as it is for legal translators.

Translators can probably learn a few tricks from journalists about translating this type of term. I, at least, took away the following three things from the talk.

  1. Description usually trumps linguistic solutions.
  2. Pay more attention to your audience than some, possibly Mickey Mouse, government department or public servant when researching translations.
  3. Good translations for tricky culture-specific terms often come over time from a sort of collective “bouncing-off” process.

Description trumps linguistic solutions, especially when it comes to the Kansas City milkman

The foreign correspondent’s goal — as is every journalist’s, apparently — is to be understood by the Kansas City milkman. When correspondents come across a culture-specific term unfamiliar to their readers in other countries, they try to get the reader to understand the term in the context of a particular story by using straightforward language that often amounts to a description (as concisely as possible).

Journalists, it seems, 1) come across the culture-specific term, 2) come to understand it and then 3) set out to make the reader understand it using familiar language.

Sounds logical enough, and very applicable to translation (and part of the process, you’d expect), although sometimes I think it’s easy for translators to get sidetracked down the wrong path.

Firstly, as we often come across terms in a different way, i.e., as part of a text rather than as part of story, we may have a bias towards looking for linguistic solutions (i.e., sprouting from the term itself and the range of possible linguistic equivalents rather than based on meaning and geared towards understanding), sometimes without even fully understanding the term.

Good translators probably rarely do this — at the very least you can be sure they’ll always find out what the term means, but there is a risk we’ll go for a linguistic solution that might not make sense as a natural result of how we find terms, as stated above: as part of a text rather than a story.

Secondly, this may also occur because we probably don’t always have the audience as firmly in our mind as journalists do, who are surely kept far more accountable for their writing through reader and editor feedback.

Of course, as we are usually much further away from our audience — who often change from one job to another — this is to some extent unavoidable. But that’s where I see the benefit of visualising the audience and always having them in mind as journalists do, even if no-one tells us who they are. Keeping that imaginary English-speaking lawyer in mind when translating a legal document might help to keep us on track in producing a translation that makes sense.

And if we’re really in the dark as to who might end up reading our translation, the Kansas City milkman is probably a good fallback, and should ensure we always write to be understood.

An example: reserva de ley

Here’s an example of translating a legal term that illustrates the difference between a descriptive and a linguistic or at least literal strategy: reserva de ley.

Parts 2 and 3 to come soon, hopefully!

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Written by Rob Lunn

Rob Lunn is a freelance translator based in Spain. He translates from Spanish and Catalan into English and specialises in legal translation.

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