Sunday, May 11, 2014

Translator's delight: harsh interrogation methods

Translators are strange people, with lots of power if they work for the powerful and no power if they translate Korean, Chinese, or Japanese operating instructions into English.

Competition by computers, called machine translation, has frightened many in the profession who see themselves as the quintessential undervalued and underpaid professionals. But bad computer translations have had one positive effect: they deflected some of the ridicule to machines. The bad news, of course, is that the machines are getting better, which may move the smirks back to the humans.
Crowd sourcing of work is also seen with ambivalence, and the fact that some jobs are offered in the Mechanical Turk category does not help. Neither does the fact that the profession is largely female.

These sherpas of international communication may or may not get a pat on the back, they may or may not make it into the footnotes of the famous, like Sakajawea. If your boss was infamous and is dead, you may even get to write a book, like Hitler's translator (or interpreter if you are a stickler for details).

On a practical everyday level, your only headlines might be collateral, a mention as the translator of a pulp fiction or non-fiction book, or as the person who refuses to render the computer device "modem" as male "der Modem", or stubbornly insisting on the German "Kennwort" for the English password when the rest of the country has moved to newly minted Passwort. Or as one of two Germans who still differentiate between "physisch" and "physikalisch" when you encounter the English word "physical".

Over time, you get used to being a two legged dictionary in the company of the powerful. Hey, what's Muschelkalk in English?  
Muschelkalk is the technical term in English.

Then there are the occasions when your translation is right and wrong at the same time.
We need to fix the existing German version, there is a comma missing after <whatever>.
The English is fine, the sentence structure comes without a comma anyway.

And then there are the euphemisms and the emotionally charged words. Say, you happen to make a few extra euros by running alongside some military and a German points at a structure: das ist der Ruheraum. A place where folks rest? More like the morgue.

For linguists, the language of the war on terror may have been quite terrifying in its awful twisting of language structures that appeared deceptively straightforward.

But there is one phrase out of this that disproves the old adage of "something always gets lost in translation".

While the Germans adopted the term "waterboarding", just capitalize the initial "w", done, they had a very easy time with "harsh interrogation methods".

"Verschärfte Vernehmungsmethoden" comes easily to that language. The funny thing is that those touting the importance of Germany's linguistic traditions are uneasy with particular expression of tradition.

They prefer to steer you to Goethe and think poems.

We think Faustian bargains.

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