Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Read This, Translators!

"Will you blog about it?" a friend asked, and I said no, I was too shocked.
But now after a couple of days, I decided: Yes, I will blog about it because however much it shocked me, I mustn't keep silent.

So what was it all about? It was all about the word "Lebensmittelpunkt" (the centre of one's life) which a translator thought had something to do with groceries (Lebensmittel). Oh yes they did.
Whilst this is so utterly hilarious that you can now probably dine out on it at bilingual dinner parties for the rest of your life, it's also serious. Very serious indeed. It is quite literally the equivalent of translating "carpet" as "small domestic animal in a vehicle". And it tells you one thing with  brutal laser-light clarity - somebody who would even think of such a possibility has no idea about the language, no grip of German, and should most definitely not be working as a translator. 

This is not an isolated case. I look at translators' websites, flyers, promotional material - and I shudder. It's so bad. And if they cannot manage their own advertising in a "foreign" language, how can they translate customers' (no doubt they would call them "clients") texts? There are translators who write blogs (in their 'other' language) which on a good day you think are a bit manky, and on a bad day they are incomprehensible. Yet those people put themselves about, have fan pages on Facebook, etc.etc

 Listen - I don't begrudge them their money, and their income. I'm NOT a translator, therefore I'm not your competition. I'm just someone who cares deeply about language, and really feels that this shady, furtive ("och, no idea but nobody will notice, just say groceries...") behaviour has to stop. Please realise, all you good, honest, able translators out there that those people are damaging your industry, your work, and your reputation. You should be campaigning against THEM, not against falling rates and machine translators. (Oh btw, my examples aren't anonymous students slaving away in a translation factory! They are ladies and gentlemen with an office, a company name, and as I said a badly translated website.)

So please don't just always feel under attack - DO SOMETHING! Stop going to conferences and organise yourselves into guilds and "Verbände". Your language won't get better that way. What are you going to do with all those "referrals" if you translate utter rubbish? And don't think people won't notice. This isn't just me speaking as a language lover. People in major companies have become highly suspicious of translators and are collectively moving away from those dodgy rate-quoters, just in it for the money - who nevertheless hide behind high-falutin' "Quality has its price" mottos. I know this because I talk to them about it.

So what SHOULD you be doing?
  1. Be self-critical. An old O-level, a dusty dictionary and plenty of online resources (Linguee et al) won't see you through. Fact. Accept it. 
  2. Improve your language drastically. And I mean drastically. You already have a certain level of "expertise" - work it" Read nothing but "foreign" language websites, books etc. Whenever you can, avoid speaking your "mother tongue".Write original text, e.g. on social media sites. I notice people stick to their own language all the time - don't! And  also follow people who write in different languages.
  3. Stop trying to hide the fact that you're not that good. People WILL find out. And it will reflect badly on you. Work within your limitations. Don't take on work for the money when you know it is too difficult.
  4. Don't take a correction as a slight.  I have had so many abusive responses when I point out mistakes and errors. You will simply have to accept it. I certainly won't stop -  but more importantly your customers (err, clients) won't either. (If an electrician does a shoddy job, the customer would complain, too - with translations it might take longer, but it will come to light!)
  5. I personally have little faith in translators who can only translate "into" X. If you're not able to switch between languages and have a near-adequate native speaker level in either language, you shouldn't take on translations. 
  6.  A way out of this dilemma would be to organise yourselves into groups of mixed native speakers, thereby guaranteeing a level of quality.
  7. Don't bemoan your fate with other translators (rates time-pressure, machine translations etc etc). It's a waste of time. Go out and exercise your language skills instead.
  8. If you see bad translation work, say so. There's absolutely no point in solidarity with bad translators. Bad translators are bad for the whole industry. Their bad work will reflect badly on all of you.
  9. And lastly, do not ever translate "Lebensmittelpunkt" as "grocery point" - but you wouldn't do that anyway, would you?


  1. I think you were absolutely right to blog about this. What a shite state of affairs it is when a translator who considers themselves competent doesn't appreciate the context in which the material is set. Shoddy.

    I recently turned down a lucrative copy writing gig because I didn't know enough about the subject to give the client good value. He was shocked when I told him to find someone who wouldn't cost him the Earth. I could have done the job, but for double the time and money he wanted to spend and it would have probably risked the relationship, which is really the point here. Business of any nature is about relationships as much as it is about the work one delivers. In my humble opinion, if you can't do it well, don't take the job.

  2. That was exactlythe point I was trying to make! "Take the money and run" simply can't be the maxim of a business relationship.

  3. Item 9 really hit home! I really love language meltdowns and mixups. I even collect them. A recent one a friend of mine told me about was how he mixed up Vorführung with Verführung.


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