Does Your Translator Truly Understand You?
I know it might not seem like it from the outside looking in, and the advent of AI and ChatGPT makes it tempting to disinvest from human expertise in your translation projects. In this blog post, I invite you to examine some translations together. When we're done, I hope you'll get a sense of how quality translation not only needs human translators, but high-caliber ones that can truly take care of your words.
Two quick notes before we start. One, keep in mind that according to the credits, some of these translations had gone through review prior to publication. Second, what's presented below is not a complete rundown of all issues. I picked the sneakiest ones to demonstrate to you—a translation buyer—the translation challenges you might not foresee as a native speaker.
Do sweat the small stuff
Our first subject is this TED talk. I was rewatching it after our interpreting group used it for practice and turned on the Chinese subtitle translation out of curiosity.
English original: [My dad] was one of those beloved professors.
Chinese back translation: [My dad] was one of the beloved professors.
The devil is in the details. The English original, "one of those beloved professors," means that the speaker's father fits the ideas or imagery you typically associate with a beloved professor. The Chinese translator, however, misunderstood it as the dad being a beloved professor among many other beloved professors. Sure, it's not a catastrophic mistake, but this tiny difference lays bare a huge gap between understanding a text word for word versus absorbing a text like a native speaker.
Dictionaries can't always help
Now let's take a look at this New York Times article. (A side note for colleagues: I find the dual-language NYT articles a great resource to practice your sight translation skills.)
English original: In a play on the “wolf warrior” label for China's new breed of aggressive diplomats, she called herself a “cat warrior.”
Chinese back translation: The new generation of Chinese diplomats is aggressive, and in the game of applying "wolf warrior" labels, she called herself a "cat warrior."
A native speaker would understand that "play" here means word play. However, as we can see in the translation, this is not immediately clear to the translator, and consequently, the translation reader will be misled as well. Here's the kicker: this sort of associative understanding cannot be found in dictionaries. You either know it, or you don't, and that knowing takes a lot of immersion and hard work to cultivate.
Didn't see what you did there
Now let's turn to Netflix. In the hit show Wednesday (Episode 5, 8:12'), there is a scene where the school principal suggests counseling for the Addams family.
Dad (Gomez Addams): I always love head shrinking.
Mom (Morticia Addams): Not the kind of head shrinking you're thinking about.
As you can see, the joke here is the dad's gruesome but very much in-character misunderstanding of "shrinking," which is also the colloquial term for seeing a therapist. The Chinese translation handles the exchange literally: shrinking of the skull. The problem is that it has no connection to the Chinese terms for psychiatry. So to the Chinese audience, the result was not amusement but confusion: What's this whole exchange about? Why is he talking about shrinking a skull when they're talking about counseling?
When there is clever writing in the English original, it takes equally creative thinking to make it make sense to your non-English speaking audience. To translate this dialogue properly, one should not focus on the wording—"head shrinking" only makes sense as a pun in English. Instead, the translator should recreate an equally dark misunderstanding for Chinese. For example, the dad could mishear 诊疗 (treatment, zhěnliáo) as 针疗 (needle treatment, zhēnliáo) and excitedly talk about how much he enjoys needle poking.
Summary: the 80/20 rule
The 80/20 rule is used widely in business and productivity. A classic application is that a company might derive 80% of its revenue from 20% of customers. I like to use this framework in terms of translation quality. Let's say 80% of a text can be adequately translated by the majority of translators, but there is always that 20% that requires an exceedingly high level of skill, language sensibilities, and creativity. And that 20%—the joke, the subtext, the nuance, the creative turn of phrase—is the best part that makes the entire text shine.
It is worth examining whether your translator breaks barriers or builds walls. And it is certainly worth finding a translator who truly understands your message.
Want to feel seen and heard in your communication between Chinese and English?
Hi, I'm Sijin! I'm an ATA-certified English<>Chinese translator and Mandarin interpreter dedicated to getting things right. Get in touch today, and I look forward to making you look good and sound good in words. Talk soon!
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