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  • Writer's pictureSijin Xian

Is Your Translator Making the Right Word Association?

Let's play a quick word association game: what springs to your mind when you hear the words "Planet Fitness"?

As a translator, reviewing the work of my peers never ceases to fascinate me. It offers a unique opportunity to pick up on every nuance of their understanding of a sentence. A translator occupies the role of both reader and writer, and as philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer observed, "Reading is already translation, and translation is translation for the second time."

What does this mean for you as a translation client? It means that if your translator is not getting a correct mental image of the content, they will be unable to produce the right idea in their translation.

This brings me back to the Planet Fitness question. In a recent project, there was a tangential reference to the fitness company. The translator rendered it as 星球健身房, indicating that they understood "Planet" as the name of the gym, in the vein of Starbucks coffee shops or Apple computer stores.

However, for native speakers, the name "Planet Fitness" evokes thoughts of the "Planet Earth," and the brand name should therefore be more aptly rendered as 健身星球, emphasizing that the entire planet is devoted to fitness.

While this incidental reference may not seem like a significant issue for the project I was working on, it nevertheless reflects the translator's lack of language mastery and underscores the importance of accurate mental association for producing quality translation.

To further illustrate this point, consider this Chinese article about the TikTok CEO, Shou Zi Chew, and his wife, Vivian Kao, who works in the financial sector. The article quoted Kao as saying, "我喜欢初创公司, 我是一个不可知论者." I immediately recognized the translation issue and found the original quote in a Harvard Business School alum interview: "I love startups, I'm industry-agnostic."

The translator had not realized that the word "agnostic" has a different meaning in the tech industry (such as platform-agnostic) and instead translated it in the philosophical sense of agnosticism. This gave the impression—or confusion, really—that Kao believed nothing could be known about the existence of God, whereas she actually meant that she does not limit herself to specific industries.

Translation is an intricate and challenging task. It takes tremendous mastery in one language to fully understand the meaning and the intent, and equal command in the other language to convey them effectively. So next time you're in need of a translation, look for someone who is knowledgeable, experienced, and understands the cultural nuances of both languages. Remember, a good translation is not just about words. It's about conveying the right message.

Looking for a conscientious linguist to deliver your messages with accuracy and clarity? Hi, I'm Sijin. I'm an ATA-certified English-to-Chinese and ATA-certified Chinese-to-English translator dedicated to getting things right. Get in touch today, and I look forward to making you look good in words. Talk soon!


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