Translating ideas, not just words - Taipei Times
Tue, May 01, 2018 - Page 8 News List

Translating ideas, not just words

By Emilio Venezian

Over the years I have taught many courses in business communications in what we commonly refer to as “English,” although it was usually more appropriate to refer to it as “American English.” I have also given lessons or tutored in Latin, French, Spanish and Italian.

One of the first things I tell my students is: “Saying or writing what is on your mind is not communicating. Communicating is saying or writing what is on your mind so that your audience can interpret it in only the way you intend.”

When translation is involved, the second thing is: “Never try to translate words, work at translating ideas.”

Unfortunately, people are fixated on translating words. Again and again I see students reading something and stopping at every word they do not recognize to look it up in the dictionary. One example that I am not likely to forget comes from a student reading English text who came across the word “drink” and without reading any further wrote the Chinese character for “beverage.”

As it happens, in the sentence the student was reading “drink” was a verb. Having looked up the word without thinking and trying to make sense of the sentence with a noun in its place was an impossible feat.

Students waste more time because they insist on stopping at every word and do not read the whole sentence or paragraph before beginning to look up the unfamiliar words. Internet translation applications, for the most part, fail pretty much in the same area: They overemphasize translation of words rather than the translation of ideas.

I can illustrate the first caveat from an experience when I was studying Mandarin. We were given a quiz to translate sentences from Mandarin to English. I failed to translate the sentence “Because Amy’s mother is French she speaks French fluently.”

The teacher chided me because she thought it was very simple. It is, if you can figure out what the sentence means, and I pointed this out. The teacher could not see any problem. I said the sentence is ambiguous in either language. It could mean that Amy’s mother could speak French fluently because she was French or that Amy could speak French fluently because she had learned from her French mother.

The teacher had trouble grasping that until I added: “I am considerably older than you and have met several families with Chinese parents whose children cannot speak Mandarin at all.”

That still did not go through until I pointed out that there were many Cantonese families in the US, the UK and Canada who had emigrated before 1948 and whose children spoke English and Cantonese, but not Mandarin.

The point is that the sentence given had at least two plausible meanings and (in my view at least) saying “I cannot translate this because I do not know what it means” is better than to either translate it with the same ambiguity or to translate it incorrectly.

After all, there would have been no ambiguity if the sentence had been: “Because John’s mother is French she speaks French fluently” or “Because John’s mother is French he speaks French fluently.” And interestingly the ambiguity would disappear also in written Mandarin, but not in oral Mandarin.

The second caveat can be illustrated by an example from life. I live not far from the Xindian MRT Station and often take the MRT to go to Taipei or other parts of New Taipei City. On the way back to Xindian, the MRT stops at Qichang Station. The announcement in English is close to “Xindian Station, transfer to the MRT to Xiaobitan. If you are going to Bitan disembark at Xindian Station.”

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