Is there anything that shouldn’t be translated?

Is there anything that shouldn’t be translated? All right, we’ll admit it: it does sound like an odd question. Especially coming from a translation agency. After all, we do live in the age of information. With search engines and encyclopaedias and on-demand media just a mouse-click away, universal access to content is something that most people take for granted now. These days, everyone wants access to everything, all of the time.

So yes, in that context, the idea of consciously choosing not to translate something may seem a little counter-intuitive. And in fact, assuming unlimited time and budgets, we’d absolutely recommend that every business translate all of its materials into as many languages as possible. But if we drill down a little deeper into the details of each of those documents, we might find words or phrases – or sometimes even longer sections – that require a slightly different approach to just translating them word-for-word. If you receive a translated document and it retains some source-language words or phrases, or the content doesn’t quite look identical to the original version, this might be the reason why.

Here’s a particularly thorny example: proper nouns. For those of you who aren’t particularly linguistically inclined, a proper noun is the name of a specific and unique ‘thing’ – like a person, organisation or place. Let’s consider the example of a part of Germany which Germans call “Bayern”. The English-speakers of the world know it as “Bavaria” – but it shouldn’t always be translated as such. The football team Bayern München, for example, is almost always rendered as “Bayern Munich” for English-speaking audiences. Looking at that name out of context, it’s hard to find a reason to translate one proper noun but not the other. But however the trend got started, it’s now common practice – and many English-speakers are so used to seeing the name written this way that they would actually find it more confusing to read about a football team named “Bavaria Munich”.

In the case of proper nouns, then, translators are guided by past precedent. They may translate a name, leave it alone, or put two versions of the name side-by-side, depending on what best suits the context. To a certain extent, translating proper nouns therefore requires making a judgment call – and those judgements can change over time. For example, several hundred years ago, an English translator might have felt free to render a Polish name like “Piotr” as “Peter”; today, we might not even consider that a translation at all.

In other cases, translators need to rely less on precedent and more on creative flair. These are the times where each individual word or phrase has an equivalent in the target language, but where something is still lost in translation. Here’s a joke for you:

“What do you think of Sandra’s carpentry project?”

“It’s great. She really nailed it.”

Many translators would throw their heads into their hands upon seeing this exchange – and not just because it’s a terrible pun. On the one hand, Sandra literally nailed planks of wood together to complete her project, but on the other, she “nailed it” in the sense of being very successful. This kind of double- meaning rarely transfers well from one language to another, so any direct translation might end up pointless if it preserves the meaning of the text but not its real purpose (to make the reader groan out loud). To get around this problem, a linguist might invent a new pun – perhaps using a different woodwork-related idiom – or even tell a different, unrelated joke. It all depends on the broader context of the document.

Another case when it can be better to leave something untranslated is if it benefits the text as a whole. Sometimes, for example, the use of a foreign language can provide a sense of authenticity. The film Lost In Translation (appropriately enough) features multiple scenes in which Bill Murray’s character, feeling lost and alone in the middle of Tokyo, is completely unable to understand what the people around him are saying because he doesn’t speak their language. Because the viewer doesn’t know what’s being said either (unless they happen to be bilingual), it becomes much easier to identify with Murray’s sense of isolation. Any translator in charge of dubbing or subtitling that film would have had to think carefully about which lines really needed to be translated.

Now that we’ve seen a few specific examples of things that shouldn’t be translated, what general conclusions can we draw? Is there a fixed set of rules for when a word, sentence or paragraph should be left in its original language – something that businesses can use to evaluate the translations they receive? Well, by its nature, this kind of judgement is highly dependent on context and individual circumstances, so we definitely recommend letting a professional translator make this judgement for you whenever possible. With that said, you can be assured that they’re probably paying attention to these rules of thumb:

1. Will this section be understood if left in its original language?

Or, in very rare cases, does it matter if it can’t be understood? It’s important to think carefully about this one: it usually requires input and detailed consideration from someone who’s an expert in the target language.

2. Is there a precedent in other translations?

If they have access to an existing translation memory (TM) database, translators will check to see how this passage has been handled in the past. If they can’t find it there, they may look for it online or in print publications. The point of this research is that if your readers are used to seeing a term untranslated, then it might potentially be better to leave it alone.

3. Would translating this section have some sort of a negative impact?

This is a very rare circumstance, but it’s theoretically possible. A document which discusses the differences between languages (such as this article, for example) may require a slightly more creative translation than usual, so that the broader points that it makes are preserved and comprehensible. For example, if a specific grammatical quirk or cultural reference doesn’t apply to the target language, it might be better to come up with a new example.

All of these rules have something in common – they are rooted in a key guiding principle that translators follow whenever possible. The principle is this: translation is important in and of itself, but wherever possible, it should be done in the service of localisation. The two terms aren’t synonyms: translation transfers the meaning of a text from one language to another, but localisation adapts that text to make it more suitable for use in a different local context. It’s a smarter, more inclusive approach than simply translating without context. So perhaps the real answer to the question we originally asked is this: it’s true that most things should be translated, but the really important thing is to make sure it’s all properly localised, as well. We are good at both. Request a free quote now!

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