Original post written in French by Guillaume Deneufbourg, freelance translator since 2002 and translation instructor at the University of Lille (France), in the Traduction Spécialisée Multilingue master’s programme
English version adapted/co-authored by Ben Karl, freelance translator based in Los Angeles, California.
Some professional translators regularly decry what they perceive as an underappreciation of their skills and expertise. In the translation community, it’s no secret that certain “amateurs,” believing they have adequate knowledge of a foreign language and/or translation, decide to dabble in it themselves without relying on professional expertise, which they deem too expensive.
How can we blame them? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve weeded my own garden, lovingly detailed my own car, or painted a railing, depriving gardeners, car washers, and painters of a respectable source of income. Personally, I don’t have the slightest problem with this. It inevitably happens all the time, and (almost) no industry is immune.
Nothing groundbreaking, you might say, but enough to rub a fellow translator the wrong way. He recently condemned this sacrilegious practice on Twitter, calling out non-translators for a lack of integrity:
In English, the tweet reads: #Translators usually have the integrity to admit when they’re not absolute experts in the field a text that needs to be translated is about. Why don’t some experts recognize #translation as an area of expertise in its own right?
I’m not sure what prompted this tweet. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to come to the defense of the accused, who don’t appear to me as being dishonest or ill-intentioned. It seems that most people are simply unaware of the challenges inherent in translation.
In the retweet from yours truly, I hypothesized that this was an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect: novices—not knowing what makes a (good) translation—overestimate their abilities and dive head first into an endeavor they lack the tools for. What should we do, then? I say we break it down and explain it. So, let’s do just that, if we can, using an “enlightening” example.
Take the following product slogan, inspired by Jean Delisle, a thought leader in translation education and translation studies and the author of La Traduction Raisonnée.
“L’ampoule qui consomme peu et dure longtemps.”
Take a few seconds to translate this phrase from a light bulb manufacturer into English in your head. Done? Great!
If you don’t earn your living from translation, you might’ve thought of something like:
“The light bulb that consumes little and lasts a long time.”
At first glance, this is a passable attempt that gives us a rough approximation. While the result is grammatically correct, at second glance, there are several areas that can be significantly improved. You might be surprised to learn that this translation betrays the simplicity of the original and lacks the idiomacy of the target language.
Firstly, English and French use articles differently. Whereas French might use a singular noun with a definite article (le, la, l’, les) to express a general idea, English uses a singular noun with an indefinite article (a, an) or a plural noun with no article at all.
Secondly, in French, appliances can consume, and energy is implied. In English, this isn’t the case. Our brains can take the cognitive leap and add energy, but it would be better to be explicit. Then, there’s register, or type of language used in a given circumstance. The English sounds “off.” Would an English copywriter naturally talk about light bulbs consuming energy, or using it (or even saving it)?
Thirdly, we might ask whether “light” is an unnecessary qualifier of “bulb.” We typically have flower bulbs and light bulbs, but in this context, and given the likelihood there will be an accompanying picture, there’s zero ambiguity.
Lastly, little energy in a marketing context may sound better as a comparative, which gives us less energy. A comparative would also be a fine replacement for a long time, and it would cut three words down to one, giving us longer.
After going through this mental process, we might land on a functional equivalent like:
“A bulb that lasts longer using less energy.”
When phrased like this, the translation goes just beyond the French but still uses it as a starting point. That said, we can go further—after all, a “functional equivalent” is not necessarily a correct translation. Ideally, we’d know more about the manufacturer’s marketing tone, past slogans, the layout of the final ad, and more. There are dozens of factors we don’t have room to examine in detail here, but we need to add a marketing element to make the slogan a bit punchier.
How? By shortening, synthesizing, playing with the words and ideas. For example, English has the ability to create compound modifiers: lasts longer might become long-lasting, uses less energy might become energy-efficient, and so on. We can add, subtract, and rearrange to find something that fits, giving us this humble attempt, one of many possibilities:
“A long-lasting, energy-efficient bulb.”
To make it sound more like a slogan, another option could be “an energy-efficient bulb that lasts.” Alliterative, compact, but perfect? Certainly not. Especially since the original slogan isn’t all that catchy to begin with. But you get the idea.
We can draw two conclusions from this:
First, our analysis presupposes six things: knowledge of French, of course, but also general knowledge, logical reasoning, knowledge of English, a touch of creativity, and skopos, or the purpose of the text (advertising). Only when we blend these six elements will we get the best result.
Second, the low-cost option, “The light bulb that consumes little [energy] and lasts a long time,” is understandable, maybe even acceptable. But while a few lingering weeds in my flowerbeds or unsightly smudges on my car don’t bother me, everyone is responsible for defining their own needs and priorities, keeping in mind that when you do these “jobs” yourself, the quality of the end result might not be the same as what a professional would deliver.