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Charming translations

An effective translation between languages is rarely word for word. A great translation is never word for word, especially when translating within the same language.

What is this nonsense? Isn’t translation all about different languages: say, German to French? Or, if you are very unlucky, British to American English?

It is true that within the same language, we tend to speak of rewording or rewriting, or repurposing (ugh) for different audiences. Occasionally, someone will impatiently demand that an overly complex piece of English should be “translated into English”.

But mostly, the process of translating within a language is overlooked, or unconscious, or just assumed to happen. A journalist writes in a certain way because that is how she must write to be published in the Financial Times. Another journalist writes very different English, because that is how they get printed in Total Carp magazine. (Yes, it exists.)

I used to earn a living turning technical English into less technical English. This was just as thrilling as it sounds. But it did teach me to think in terms of translating within a language, and that it is useful to think actively in terms of translation in many situations. It is a real tool of effective communication.

Recently I saw a piece on fishing in a newspaper, and translated it into a joke for my comedy:

“The British fishing industry’s trust in Brexit-promoters and the Tory government was like a child taking a Smartie from the hand of a stranger. A high-risk strategy.”

As originally performed, the joke was far more obscene. But you get the idea. And, no, I don’t care if you laughed. My obligation to a SameSky blog audience is different to that of a stand-up crowd. My intent guides my translation.

I have an acquaintance who often explains that he is deeply suspicious of the use of personal charm. He means the sort of allure that is sometimes communicated in spoken words. Inevitably, he is also one of the least endearing people I have ever met. His instinct for saying the wrong thing is almost sublime. But never charming.

In a desperate effort to keep things civil, I tell myself that I’m learning a lot from this guy. For example, you do not have to be as paranoid as he is to ask yourself why something is being presented in particular words, and not others that might mean something similar. It is also great fun trying to charm him out of some views he holds, without him noticing that I am translating my arguments into ‘his’ language.

Is that cruel? Perhaps I am not as charming as I like to think. But we are well into a century in which few people listen properly, or read things properly, or think as rigorously as they could. Regular consideration of ‘translation issues’ is the key to both manipulating others and avoiding being manipulated oneself. Your choice.

Nick Bradbury works in AI / customer relationship management. At night, he translates this into stand-up comedy.

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