Things I learnt from a journo about translating culture-specific terms: (2) Own criteria and audience come first

This is the second part to this post on what I took away from the final talk at the METM14 conference.

Another aspect of translating culture-specific terms that came up in Martin Roberts’s talk was his total and very healthy disregard for the recommendations given by public and other source-language authorities on how terms should be translated into other languages.

This is particularly relevant for translating into English (the international language on which everyone has an opinion) and from a language like Spanish, which has a well-known penchant for turning to higher entities when it comes to language matters.

This is definitely another lesson for translators.

Oftentimes, the justification for using a particular translation is that so-and-so ministry or department says it should be translated like that or the term appears in a translation linked to an official body, when we should really just worry about getting the best translation according to our own criteria and, in particular, working out how best to transfer the meaning so our readers will understand what we want them to.

Admittedly, it’s not always that straightforward. Sometimes you’re asked to translate a term in a certain way and don’t have much choice about it, but, in my experience, this happens rarely and can even represent an opportunity to help make the ‘official’ translation better.

Autonomous communities and terrorists

A couple of terms came up in Martin’s talk that might serve to mark the limits to how far translators can follow the example of the journalists (in ignoring the preferences and suggestions of source-language experts and authorities).

For instance, comunidad autónoma is a painful little culture-specific term that comes up often when translating from Spanish to English. Painful because it’s awkward and has great potential for adding clumsiness to translations that don’t need it.

While Spain is not a federation, it is highly decentralized, and, in practice, the regional governments — these comunidades autónomas — have about as much power as you could expect states to have in a federal system.

The official and most ‘correct’ and probably accepted translation of the term is “autonomous community” (AC), but, as we saw in the talk, journalists don’t like this term much — I imagine because of it’s clumsy and doesn’t really tell the reader in a far-off land much about what it is — and most news agencies apparently go for some version of “regional/regions”.

I can understand this doubt and have instinctively — as most translators probably first do — always translated the term in the same way (i.e., some version of “region”, such as “autonomous region”), at least until I get around to revising my translation or remember that the more accepted term is AC. Then it depends on what the context is as to whether I (i) use the ‘official’ term (often with a gloss the first time to explain it is a regional territory), (ii) stay with my original “region/al” translation or (iii) avoid it all together. Because, depending on the context but especially for less-formal ones, the term can often be side-stepped altogether by talking simply about so-and-so government or just using the name of the region (e.g., Catalan Government or Catalonia) — maybe not exact translations but sometimes that is less important than avoiding the clumsiness of AC.

Anyway, I’m not going to reinvent the wheel here with how to translate this term because the options are well-documented around the place (here, for example), but, in general, my approach is to use AC when I have to and sidestep it altogether if I can. The main question for me is if I really need to bog the reader down with the clumsier but fairly standard translation. Often you can get away with something a little easier on the ear.

Either way, it’s a good to term to examine because it brings up a range of interesting issues.

For instance, as someone pointed out during the talk, it’s still a relatively new term, and while our first instinct might be to avoid it, sometimes we have a duty to educate the reader, particularly, I’d say, in the case of news media. After all, surely even the Kansas City milkman is capable of learning that Spain breaks its territory up in a slightly different way to the US.

Another option that came up in the talk was simply “northern/southern/etc. region”, which I think is going too far. It would depend on the context, but in most cases you need to give some hint that it’s a jurisdictional or political territory and not just a physical one that doesn’t sound like it’s hemmed in by a definite border. Even just referring to Galicia or Catalonia conjures up some idea of an area with a defined border; western region doesn’t.

Also, apparently the word comunidad was chosen precisely to avoid the word “region” for political reasons. I was unaware of this, however, I don’t think considerations like this should impact too much on which English translation we decide is the best. If, for instance, some derivative of “region” fits better in a context, so be it; it should be used.

And then we have the term “terrorist”, which might mark the point where translators have to leave to one side the example of journalists and news agencies (e.g., the BBC, Reuters), many of whom refrain from using the word in references to and descriptions of ETA in favour of more neutral terms.

While this certainly seems a fair argument in the name of journalistic objectivity, translators probably owe a little more to their authors, and, unless we’re translating a news article or something similar that aims to be objective and use the usual language of English current affairs, we probably should always use terrorist in deference to the author, who will surely have meant to use the word “terrorist”.

I guess it’s a question of knowing where to draw the line, but I found Martin’s words on this heartening. While it’s just common sense, sometimes that disappears quickly when someone points to a translation with a government seal on it and says, “See! You have to translate it like that. It’s the official translation”, as if such a thing existed.

Please see this post for some of the problems you can find with ‘official’ translations.


Written by Rob

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.