The Perils of Translation: Babelfish.

Alright folks, while I’m dealing with the aftermath of the fundraiser, here’s a question from the mailbag.

Pat,

You’ve mentioned your translators on your blog before, generally in glowing terms. I don’t really see what the big deal is. You wrote something great. You made something out of nothing. But they’re not doing that. They’re not really making anything, they’re just…. copying it.

Plus, don’t you think that what they do is rapidly becoming obsolete? They already have programs that can translate languages. One wonders why they bother having people translators at all.

Your fan,

Steve

At first, Steve, I thought you might be pulling my leg with this e-mail. “Nobody could really think translation was easy,” I thought to myself. “He has to be putting me on.”

Then I realized that I’ve been having a crash course in the perils of translation over the last year and a half. And I remembered that most Americans are pointedly, painfully monolingual. And I remembered one of my friends saying as a joke, “How hard can it be to learn French? French babies do it all the time….”

So I’m going to take this question at face value, Steve. The truth is, translation has got to be one of the hardest jobs there is. Period.

First off, you have to be fluent in two languages. Not just kind of fluent, but *really* fluent. You need to understand the culture of the language you’re translating from, and the idiomatic speech.

Like what I said up there in my first paragraph. “Pulling my leg” is an idiom. It doesn’t mean what it actually says. If you’re pulling my leg, it mean you’re playing a joke on me, teasing me.

There are a thousand little things like that stand in the way of true fluency, and you can’t just copy them over into the new language and have them make any sense. For example, if I said, “You have a bird,” in Germany, I’m not actually saying anything about a bird. What I’m actually saying is that you’re crazy.

Secondly, you have to decide if a translation is going to be true to the letter of the work, or true to the spirit of the work.

What do I mean by this? Well… I’m reminded of what one of my favorite professors said when I asked him which version of the Odyssey I should read. I was looking for the best translation, and I trusted him, because he had a good old-fashioned classical education and could actually read Latin and Greek.

“It’s not really an issue of the best translation,” he said. “My old classics professor used to say, ‘a translation is like a woman. It can be beautiful, or it can be faithful, but it can’t be both….’”

Sexism aside, I think this strikes to the heart of the issue. A word-by-word translation is going to be clunky and awkward. But a beautiful one isn’t going to actually say the exact same thing as the original. A translator needs to walk that fine line between. Or rather, they have to dance madly back and forth over that line.

And as for translators being replaced by computer programs? I give a hearty laugh. Translation is not a science, it is an art. And as such, it belongs solely in the realm of humans.

Most everyone knows about Babelfish. Let me show you what something looks like when I use that program to translate something from English to German and back again. If this were as simple as plugging numbers into an equation, we should end up with the same thing we started with, right?

Here’s a paragraph most of you probably recognise:

I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.

You may have heard of me.

After Babelfish.

I stole princesses back of sleeping truck kings. I burned down the city of Trebon. I spent and with my reason and my life left the night with Felurian. I was away-driven of the university at a recent age, than most people are inside permitted. I step ways by moonlight, which others are afraid, in order to speak during from the day to. I spoke loved women and written Lieden, who let the Minnesänger cry with Gods.

They can have heard of me.

And that’s using German, a language so closely related to English that if they were people, it would be illegal for them to get married.

Look what happens when you do the same think with a language that’s *really* different, like Japanese:

I stole the king woman from wheelbarrow king of sleep. I burnt under the town of Trebon. I passed the night of Felurian, my sanity and went away with my life both. I was discharged rather than being able to allot most people from the university of a younger age. I the other people between day step on the road with the moonlight which is feared in order to speak concerning. I God, to the song by the document which makes the woman and the wandering minstrel cry who are loved spoke.

It can inquire about me.

Yeah. I think the translators’ jobs are safe for another year or two.

pat

This entry was posted in Ask the Author, Fanmail Q + A, foreign happenings, my oracular impulse, translationBy Pat67 Responses

65 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    Posted December 11, 2008 at 10:04 PM | Permalink

    I personally enjoy the last line of the Japanese one: “I God…”Languages are like living creatures, you can never really totally understand them and they are constantly changing. To trust a computer with translation just doesn’t work because it can’t make decisions based on intuition. All it can do is match definition and output the result.

  2. LucidLunatic
    Posted December 11, 2008 at 10:21 PM | Permalink

    I can’t help but wonder if Steve knows many other languages. Though I am far from fluent in any language but English (yet) I have studied French, Latin, Canonical Greek, and Chinese. Each one is different from the rest. Especially Chinese; there are particles and phrasings which can completely alter the strength or intention of a sentence without changing the literal English translation by a single word. There is an additional difficulty which I, in my ignorance, will attribute to be unique to English. Anyone who knows better should correct my assertion. Someone once tried to convince me that Americans and/or teenagers were bastardizing the English language. I laughed. English is the bastard child of French and Anglo-Saxon, which (as Pat said) is closely related to modern German. There’s also some of the native Celtic tongues and Latin (though that’s very similar to French) mixed in there for flavor. What this has left us with is a language with synonyms- lots of them. For instance: deer and venison. The same thing, only one is food and one eats your garden. Most languages would have one word applying to both, or a word for deer and a word for meat put together to mean venison. And there are more nuanced examples. Many words with similar meanings now have intricate differences and connotations. And that’s just if we’re being high-brow and intellectual. Step over into the realm of slang and let me baffle your sense of translation…

  3. Kathy Kreeger
    Posted December 11, 2008 at 10:23 PM | Permalink

    As an Australian living in the US I can tell you that translations are difficult enough within the English language!

  4. Jeff
    Posted December 11, 2008 at 10:26 PM | Permalink

    The Dutch one looks like this:I enter paths in the moonlight those others by day not even dare appoint. I have spoken with gods, loved women, and songs written which the minstrels to stirred water. You have perhaps of me gehoord.’Since it was first translated into Dutch, I was a bit dissapointed to see you hadn’t put the poor guys of Dutchland in the post.

  5. ladulcinea
    Posted December 11, 2008 at 10:48 PM | Permalink

    My husband pointed me to this post. I’m a Spanish teacher and I found this nearly tear-jerking. Thank you. Also absolutely love the “translation is like a woman…” quotation.

  6. Gail
    Posted December 11, 2008 at 11:40 PM | Permalink

    Yeah, your fan Steve has never tried to learn another language, it seems. I can spend five minutes explaining the Japanese phrase “ogenki desu ka” to an inquiring person. A novel would be nightmare to translate because I can’t walk the line, I just have to explain everything!

  7. Anonymous
    Posted December 11, 2008 at 11:49 PM | Permalink

    <>And I remembered that most Americans are pointedly, painfully monolingual.<>That’s exactly the first thing I thought. I bet that Steve doesn’t know any other language other than English.Anyway, English is a strange language because it completely ditched its roots and its fundamental nature. Most languages went through a “simplification process” with respect to their ancestors (I’m thinking how Ancient Greek and specially Latin lost genders, numbers, verbal modes and portions of the declension with regard to the original Indo-European, and how most Romance languages lost almost completely the Latin case declension while keeping conjugation, with the help of a few periphrastic forms), but English is well on the way to become a fucking analytic language.

  8. Sailor Matt
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Permalink

    I dunno. I couldn’t see a difference. I’ll try rereading the samples again…:)P.S. My condolences on the administrative burden we’ve dumped upon you, Pat. Collectively, we apologize.

  9. Laini Taylor
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 12:37 AM | Permalink

    Those are great translations! So funny! My first book has so far only been translated into German, and I was thrilled to be contacted by the translator and to get to talk about some of the choices they made, including completely changing the title because it just didn’t sound good in German. I am in awe of translators.And as for the fundraiser. . . wow. . . where did that last $10,000 come from in one day??? Holy cow!

  10. AndyB
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 1:26 AM | Permalink

    Pat example is both simplistic and exaggerated. He is translating things <>twice<>, once to German and once again back to English. (Since English is involved twice, any weak spots with the translation algorithms will be magnified even more.) Pat’s example also doesn’t show what a professional translator can do besides simply translating literal words.For a more accurate example, let’s take something originally written in another language and compare Yahoo’s Babel Fish English translation to a professional translator’s translation. I’ve picked <>Metamorphosis<> by Franz Kafka largely because < HREF="http://www.gutenberg.org/" REL="nofollow">Project Gutenberg<> has both the original German text and David Wyllie’s English translation.“As Gregor Samsa of one morning from jerky dreams awaked, he was changed in its bed to tremendous vermin. It lay on its tank-like hard back and saw, if it the head a little main header, its curved, brown belly, on whose height the blanket, divided by arc-shaped reinforcements, to the complete Niedergleiten ready, could keep hardly still. Its many compared with its other extent pitifully thin legs flickered it helplessly before the eyes.”“One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked.”Pat’s main point still seems to hold up, of course.One interesting thing I noticed is that Mr. Wyllie not only translated words but actually broke up sentences and slightly rearranged things.I love translator programs especially if I know a little of the language I am translating from. It lets me pull nuggets of information that I wouldn’t have been able to get any other way. But would I want to read a Babel Fish version of a full novel for pleasure? Nah, I’m not that much of a masochist.Oh, and my favorite line of the Japanese version is, “It can inquire about me.”

  11. Iyokus
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 1:43 AM | Permalink

    I can personally attest to the fact that it is really hard to translate things. I’m fluent in both Spanish (being my native language) and English (being an English major i hope i have some grasp on the language) and every time my mother for example (who doesn’t know English) asks me to translate something to her from English to Spanish it takes some serious effort and thought into getting across what are at times slang and idioms from the particular language. I’m also conversational in French(which is really close to Spanish) and I’m currently learning Japanese, and i tell you trying to switch sentences between languages is really hard.

  12. Atreus
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 2:58 AM | Permalink

    Some people simply cannot appreciate *what* language truly is and how it relates to our minds and our cultures. Language is more than simply patterned sounds, it is the order in which your mind functions – like a train-track for your thoughts. Until a computer can wax poetic about a nautical sunset, or smile at the sight of an old friend, translators are incredibly important to the literary world.Babelfish is a useful tool. When used on a webpage it can allow you to understand the basics of what was being written. But to compare that to the creativity of a human – hah!Congratulations on having your work spread to so many different parts of the world, and congratulations as well for having translators you are able to trust with your story.Oh, and LucidLunatic, your absolutely right about the strangeness of the English language – In fact I have heard it referred to its creation as being “Anglish pirates trying to flirt with Saxon barmaids.” I don’t think this is a weakness, though. It is refreshing (especially while writing, I find” to have this plethora of words to choose from. Instead of “big” it can be huge, enormous, gigantic, colossal or gargantuan. Confusing at times, but that is what makes it fun!Next summer, I am going to try to read the book in Japanese – I want to see how different it is there. I will probably need oodles of help from my friends in that country, but I am sure i could get it done in two or three months.

  13. Anonymous
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 3:39 AM | Permalink

    “I stole the king woman from wheelbarrow king of sleep.” Steve is an IDIOT. I’m fifteen.It was so completely obvious that I never even CONSIDERED that it would be easy!

  14. Pat
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 3:51 AM | Permalink

    Heh. Andy is completely right, of course. That’s a much better way of showing results.

  15. Steph
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 3:55 AM | Permalink

    reminds me of some really bad japanese subtitles to a stargate atlantis episode that were making rounds on the internet for awhile. Pegasus Galaxy was translated “Fly the horse”.

  16. narniadear
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 4:10 AM | Permalink

    Wow. Those translations made me laugh like a lunatic. :)

  17. Spryng
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 4:16 AM | Permalink

    Thank you. As a linguist, I wholly appreciate how many people can think that translating is easy. And how it is so very not.

  18. Kanna
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 4:53 AM | Permalink

    English did go through a simpification period when we lost genders and crap(thank goodness). While it is amazingly complex for a mainstream language its actually around the middle as far as the difficulty of languages go. The hardest languages to learn are thouse only spoken by small isolated group of people, where the only people learning are babies. And I envy French babies, they might have a chance of passing my French final…

  19. Althalus
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 5:34 AM | Permalink

    Yeah, I learned the errors of Bablefish way back in Middle School when I tried to use it for an Spanish paper.

  20. Anonymous
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 6:53 AM | Permalink

    I love you for this blog, Pat.XXXBetsy

  21. Guido
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 7:56 AM | Permalink

    Thank you, Pat.Though I have not translated any books yet, my day-to-day job is translating – games, websites, technical and user manuals, software, etc.It is amazing, how many people will turn away and mumble ‘Our secretary can to it, then’, when you tell them that you want real money for your work …

  22. marky
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 9:18 AM | Permalink

    Chan eil aon chànan gu leòr. This translated from Gaelic to english on babelfish is….That’s right. They don’t cover Gaelic on Babelfish. The swines! Aye, translate and you may die, don’t and you’ll live. At least a while.And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing totrade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just onechance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may takeour language, but they’ll never translate us on Babelfish?!oh, and chan eil aon chànan gu leòr means, one language is never enough. So true, so very true.

  23. LibrarianChan
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 9:46 AM | Permalink

    Giggle, giggle. Human translators are awesome! =) I envy people that can speak two languages fluently. Really, I have to be VERY desperate to pull up an online translator to communicate with a library patron and that’s usually for pretty straightforward things like “Books are checked out for three weeks.” There’s no way I would subject <>Name of the Wind<> to the horrors of a translating program. “There’s a lot lost in the translation” would be an understatement. Props to all the translators out there!

  24. Anonymous
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 11:57 AM | Permalink

    Thank you, Pat!Jochen

  25. Doug Warren
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 12:54 PM | Permalink

    I work in technical documentation and my manuals are normally translated into 6 or 7 languages. Waiting for translations is the biggest part of my schedule (6 weeks normally), and this is not prose, but simple computer instructions. There are also a myriad of words that can’t be translated exactly, so anyone who thinks translation is simple is a dumkopf.

  26. caranorn
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 1:50 PM | Permalink

    Yes, I find this notion that translation is easy fascinating. Anyone who ever actually tried translating a complex text would know otherwise. I once volunteered to do this for a magazine, translating an article from French or German to English. I think it took me two or three times as long doing this than it would have taken me to write a similar length an complexity article in any of those languages.A few other notes, when I started writing (Fantasy) again, I set out writing a chapter in German as the last book I had read had been in that language (the first and only German Fantasy I’ve read to this day). After a few paragraphs I rewrote it entirely and continued in English. Why did I do that? Simply put, some languages are better for some purpouses than others. I find the massive english vocabulary to be ideal for Fantasy but prefer French for political pamphlets, or German for technical manuals. And none of those three is actually my native language…Lastly, someone mentioned switching. If find this very easy, actually I often switch languages in emails or on forums by mistake. Often this occurs when I take a short break from typing, when I start again I’m writing a different language. Luckily this has never occurred to me in speech, though I once translated from English to English for some friends who tried to communicate with some locals, to my defense, I was terribly drunk at the time (and yes, I did indeed translate, not just repeat what they’d said).

  27. LiquidWeird
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 2:47 PM | Permalink

    @caranorn:I can only stand in awe of your language skills, and yet I can still tell that English isn’t your primary language by your post. It’s a bitch and 3/4.In addition to English, my first language, I speak Spanish reasonably well (I minored in it in college. I’d say my Spanish was rusty, but it doesn’t make sense to say that in Spanish).English is like the Frankenstein (ok ok Frankenstein’s monster for the purists) of languages. Germanic + French, and a borg-like assimilation of a huge number of words from almost every other language in existence taken directly or butchered and shoe-horned in(vamoose, buckaroo!)I do think that Americans would benefit greatly from mandatory education in other languages.Word verification: letryt – brand name for dog snacks for french poodles.

  28. Sailor Matt
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 2:57 PM | Permalink

    Unbelievable. A Star Trek reference in a discussion of language translation. I think this thread just peaked! The idea that American English is like the Borg is stellar. Resistance is futile!

  29. Oyvind
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 3:08 PM | Permalink

    Really funny. Here’s the same passage done with Google translate, back and forth from Norwegian.I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the city Třeboň. I have spent the night with left-Felurian and with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the university in a younger age than most people are allowed in. I wear path paths with the moonlight that others fear to talk about today. I have talked to the gods, loved women, and written songs that make Minstrel cry. You may have heard of me.

  30. Peter V. Brett
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 4:23 PM | Permalink

    My novel was recently translated into Japanese and Polish, and I have been relying on google’s translator to read the reviews in those markets. You’re lucky if you can figure out if the reviewer even liked it, much less appreciate any of the nuances of their comments. I even had to look up a few words used by my Australian reviewers. No one in the US says “chuffed”.

  31. Mike Toot
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 4:27 PM | Permalink

    Pat, I’m not sure why you ennobled “Steve’s” e-mail by responding to it. It’s prideful ignorance on parade. Rather than asking a legitimate question about translation, he phrases his question as a blanket statement: “It’s just copying.” He’s already answered his own question, so his statement is for purposes of argument rather than education.As Goethe once said, “There is nothing worse than aggressive stupidity.”

  32. Amanda
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 4:33 PM | Permalink

    This actually made me laugh out loud. A lot.The incredible disinterest in multilingualism that most Americans has depresses me. I wouldn’t say I’m fluent in other languages, but I’ve attempted to study and become better at them. Most of the population in other countries is bilingual, and here people treat it like a disease.But I’ll stop before I give you my entire policy speech.

  33. Sini
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 5:07 PM | Permalink

    Hi Pat, I know you must be really busy with the fund-raiser, but could you please check your rss-feed settings or something? My feed is stuck at Storytelling :( Luckily I decided to see if anyone has commented on Neil Gaiman trying to find a few ARCs for prizes and found many new posts!

  34. Anonymous
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 7:57 PM | Permalink

    I took german in high school, not much of it stuck. I’m all for learning and speaking mutiple languages. But I really love english. It has taken me my whole life to get this far with this language. The idea of learning a new one from scratch scares me. So I got nothing but respect for those that translate.

  35. Eva
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 9:04 PM | Permalink

    I read the book in my birth language , wich is Dutch. And now I’m reading it in english. coz I’m close to fluedly…(compered to my classmates anyway, I’m 15) And I really want to read it in french to. I understand german as wel because it’s very simular to my own language, but that would be like reading it in dutch again, and I already did that like 200 times…I’d love to be able to read it in japanese.(wich I’m learning right now) But I can’t quite do that jet. I can say : Hey , my name is Eva. Nice to meet you. – and thats about it.I just kinda like languages…Ow and you’re the best, funniest , beardiest(is that a word??) writer I know!!!

  36. Highlander
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 9:16 PM | Permalink

    Hi Pat2 things – 1) Great point you make. My mom is an English lecturer, fluent in 3 languages and sometimes she gets asked to do some translation work for people and its astounding how many people think that its a quick job. As pointed out by yourself and some of the other posts you need to understand your subject matter before you can do a proper translation and as illustrated by some of the hilarious examples above computers still have some way to go before they can even think of competing.2)I am always happy to see other authors visit your blog and I was very excited to see Peter V. Brett’s post above. I have just finished his “The Painted Man” and really enjoyed it. Although I’m not sure if its out in the U.S.A yet.Cheers

  37. ripshin
    Posted December 12, 2008 at 10:35 PM | Permalink

    In all this discussion of translation, I find it incredibly disturbing that no one has bothered to mention “All Your Base” (go here: http://www.allyourbasearebelongtous.com/flash/). Really, come on people!As for the fact that Americans are monolingual, I would say that of course we are…it’s because we can drive for 48 hours straight and still be in the same country, and speaking the same language. The average American has very little reason to learn another language. Frankly, I don’t find that this is that much different in foriegn countries, either. Go to a non-urban setting in whatever country you like, and I garantee that a significant portion of the populace speaks only the local language (or, in some rarer cases, languages). The myth that Americans are the only monolingual populace is, I believe, widely exaggerated. (I do travel…and frequently. So while my perceptions are just that, perceptions, they are at least based on observed conditions.)ripW.F. – presitlyEnglish version: An adverb describing the action of taking a stance shortly before assuming a reclined position.BabelFish version: To have just assumed that his posturing shorts were in action at a reclined place.

  38. Shaanti
    Posted December 13, 2008 at 4:49 AM | Permalink

    Translation is a tricky business. Even when you translate a word literally, the way a phrase is commonly used can put your best laid plans to waste. My favourite (mis)translation is the replacement of a ‘Do not disturb’ door hanger in a hotel with the words ‘Don’t bother’. Okay, the phrase means roughly the same as ‘Do not disturb’, but they way we use the phrase ‘don’t bother’ makes all the difference.And I’m still puzzling over a sign I saw in Vietnam advertising a ‘brain for rent’.

  39. Anonymous
    Posted December 13, 2008 at 11:16 PM | Permalink

    The CBC radio program Ideas had a really interesting 3 part program on literary translation called “In Other Words”. I don’t know if there’s any way to listen to it now except buying the CD but here’s the link: http://www.cbcshop.ca/CBC/shopping/product.aspx?Product_ID=ERIDE00075&Variant_ID=7010P1&lang=en-CA

  40. Anonymous
    Posted December 14, 2008 at 12:27 AM | Permalink

    <>“Woe to the makers of literal translations, who by rendering every word weaken the meaning! It is indeed by so doing that we can say the letter kills and the spirit gives life.”<>-Voltaire

  41. rebecca
    Posted December 14, 2008 at 1:36 AM | Permalink

    Great blog, Pat :) Just wanted to recommend a book on the joys (and pains) of translating:“Le ton beau de Marot” by Douglas Hofstadter.

  42. Laura
    Posted December 14, 2008 at 4:56 AM | Permalink

    I love languages. Love them.Translation is not easy! I can read an explanatory sign and understand it, and then when a member of my party asks what it says, I need a couple of minutes to actually translate it for speech…. Even comprehension is not translation.A second language is so useful and broadening. I have had several instances where I could speak with someone who did not speak my language nor I theirs, but we each spoke a third language and were able to meet on neutral ground. What fun!

  43. semioticghosts
    Posted December 14, 2008 at 3:33 PM | Permalink

    Dear Patrick,I followed a link from Neil Gaiman’s blog to yours to find out more about Heifer international (which I’ll blog about once I’ve come up with a fundraising idea). I found an extra boon in your post about translation, which is a passion of mine, though I’m not a pro in the sense of getting paid for it. A Paid pro whose work I came across recently had clearly used software to make a first pass translation and later “fixed” it by hand, resulting in an awful mess. I wish he’d read what you wrote – it might have made him think. The translation was grammatically better than what babelfish produces, but wooden, unempathic and terribly punctuated to boot. (Now, of course, I think about all the typoes I’ve probably included in the mini-rant and think I better shut up!)

  44. Lilith
    Posted December 14, 2008 at 8:44 PM | Permalink

    That is true. No matter what language you’re talking about, unless you grow up with it, learning it is a killer, especially if it wasn’t derived from Latin, such as Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and a few other languages.I know someone who aspires to be a translator, and has started out by translating doujinshi from Japanese to english. And quite frankly, it took her a good couple of hours to translate the whole thing(about 20 pages). The real problem with translating is not only learning the language, but also the limitless possibilities one world could be translated into, as well as how each language structures their sentences differently. >.< Gotta love the last line that was translated into Japanese, though. “It can acquire about me.” A good hour’s worth of laughs right there.

  45. Anniina
    Posted December 15, 2008 at 4:23 AM | Permalink

    As one who makes a living translating, I could but smile and shake my head. Great post as always, Pat :)

  46. Camila
    Posted December 15, 2008 at 7:05 AM | Permalink

    Being a native Portuguese speaker, a linguist, and having worked as a translator I get comments like that all the time. My usual reaction is to nod and smile. Thanks for actually responding to this man in a nice and humorous way. Maybe he’ll get it, maybe he’ll tell his friends, maybe I’ll get less of those comments.

  47. Anonymous
    Posted December 15, 2008 at 4:20 PM | Permalink

    yeah translating titles in particular seems to be really hard. its something unique to the culture that you can’t translate literally. “Gone with the Wind” for example, is actually called “What the Wind Took” in Spanish. strange…

  48. Fe2O3
    Posted December 16, 2008 at 12:31 AM | Permalink

    I think I once saved a translator’s job in Hong Kong from someone afflicted with such thinking as this. I say think because I don’t know what actually happened to the translator. I was listening to an English speaker talking about Thermodynamics. Well, Chinese is a concept based language so the simple translation is “heat-movement” which is all Thermodynamics means anyway. At the mention of Thermodynamics, the English speaker then began to explain that “Thermo” means “heat”. He then paused and waited patiently for the translator to translate that sentence; which after an awkward pause he did: “Heat means heat.” Everyone laughed. The speaker proceeded to explain that “dynamics” means “movement.” Again, he paused for the translator, who again said “Movement means movement.” Everyone laughed even harder. The speaker also threw several idioms into his talk like “with tires screeming” and “out with a bang” that this translator did quite well on. Several audience members who were bi-lingual laughed at the difficult phrases being thrown at the translator and his acrobatic translations that were effective in context.After the meeting, I heard some of the staff saying that the speaker was not happy with his translator, because people were laughing when there had been no cause for humor in his speech. I explained the situation and the basis for the humor. It was obvious this individual hadn’t given any thought to what the translator would be trying to do for him on stage that day. Hopefully, my explanation that they had a wonderful translator caused them to continue to use him as a translator in the future.NOTW is a book about words and the power they have in Qvoth’s world as well as in ours. Such a book cannot be translated lightly or easily.WV: illest – slang, best. See also sickest, wickedest. Pat Rothfuss writes the illest novels in the hood.

  49. Fe2O3
    Posted December 16, 2008 at 12:37 AM | Permalink

    Did I really just spell Kvothe’s name with a ‘Q’?WV: epromol – a drug that helps your fingers follow what your brain is telling them to do. As in: You just spelled Kvothe, Q-v-o-t-h. Dude, you need some epromol.

  50. LittleTiger
    Posted December 16, 2008 at 5:05 PM | Permalink

    Great example for what a translator can do with a text: In Germany, there are two different translations of “The Lord of the Rings”, both published by Klett-Cotta; an “old” translation by Margaret Carroux (1969) and a “new” translation by Wolfgang Krege (2000). When Klett-Cotta published the new translation, they withdrew the old one completely from the market. While some readers claimed that the new translation was closer to the original English, most fans complained about Krege’s use of more modern terms. Since then, the two different translations have been causing considerable controversy.Recently, Klett-Cotta has republished Carroux’s translation…For more information: “The difficulty of translating J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ into German”, < HREF="http://www.aslanidis.de/lotr/contents.html" REL="nofollow">http://www.aslanidis.de/lotr/contents.html<> (Chapter 1, especially 1.01 and 1.12)

  51. Greg Wilson
    Posted December 17, 2008 at 5:08 PM | Permalink

    AMEN! My father was an extremely successful translator, and the kind of attitude you’re talking about used to drive him absolutely nuts. Though I must admit that “They can have heard of me.” would be an amusing alternative to your original line. :)

  52. Nancy Fulda
    Posted December 23, 2008 at 11:39 AM | Permalink

    <>if I said, “You have a bird,” in Germany, I’m not actually saying anything about a bird. What I’m actually saying is that you’re crazy.<>Not only that, but you’re saying they’re crazy in an offensive and socially improper way.There’s a one-finger hand gesture for it (no, a different finger than the one we use in America), and it’s so ire-rising that it’s actually illegal for a motorist to make the gesture towards a fellow car driver.–Nancy (who over the past four years has learned more about German culture than she ever dreamed she’d want to know.)

  53. crookedmuse
    Posted December 30, 2008 at 4:19 AM | Permalink

    one word: funnyengrish.com

  54. 白丹娜
    Posted December 31, 2008 at 7:09 PM | Permalink

    Amen! I know this post is a little old, but as a Chinese major and general language lover, I can’t agree enough with your rebuttal of Steve’s idiocy. I’m newly back in the States after four months of Chinese immersion, and my brain is still muddled as I try to get my English back. Even little things make a big difference–for example, ‘bucuo’ in Mandarin literally means ‘not bad,’ so it’s easily translated into English, but the actual meaning of ‘bucuo’ is much closer to ‘really good!’ than English’s lukewarm connotation. I’ve come close to offending people lately when they ask me how I like their new sweater or whatever, and I respond ‘Not bad, not bad.’China is perhaps the #1 example of the shortcomings of language translation software. God bless the Chinese for their interest in foreign languages, but oh GOD, some of the “translated” signs and T-shirts are downright hysterical. I’m a big fan of my notebook that I bought over there that proudly proclaims “made with technology from the future for tomorrow’s writers.”I imagine translating a fantasy story would be particularly difficult, especially since the authors invent so many terms and names that often reflect Anglo-Saxon tradition. I always wondered about the translations with the Harry Potter books, since so many of the names and spells were related to Latin or classical mythology.

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    Posted January 6, 2009 at 10:37 AM | Permalink

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  56. Anonymous
    Posted March 5, 2009 at 12:59 AM | Permalink

    Hey Pat i know what you mean about translation I’m taking a German course at my high school and when speaking in German words change around and aren’t the same a lot of the time. My German teacher doesn’t even understand most American sayings because she was born and raised in Germany, so although she speaks perfect English with basically no accent she still doesn’t understand certain sayings. So translating would definitely be a difficult job.Kasiah Butler

  57. Aparna
    Posted March 12, 2009 at 10:44 AM | Permalink

    I really enjoy these translation, its really great.

  58. Aiyero
    Posted May 5, 2009 at 5:47 PM | Permalink

    THANK YOU for clearing up that misconception, at least for this guy. I’m studying to become a translator (of German and Japanese, actually :D), and I’ve spent two years trying to convince my mother that I’m not going to be replaced by Babelfish.
    Still working on mom, but the example improved my morale, at least. :D

  59. Editing
    Posted May 13, 2009 at 8:06 PM | Permalink

    Pat, you are a truly talented writer, and I commend you for bringing the translator’s importance to light. (I have often wondered why they aren’t given co-author credit to a degree for foreign releases.) Because the average person doesn’t really understand what goes into creating a book, in all its variations, it is so common to think that editors, indexers, translators, designers, and myriad others are totally expendable in the face of computer programs that can imitate what these people do. Computers don’t think. There’s no comparison–and no “personal touch” (literally) that can really make the difference between something decent and something amazing.

  60. David Wyllie
    Posted July 19, 2009 at 8:15 PM | Permalink

    I’m surprised that Andy B. is surprised that a translator will break “up sentences and slightly rearranged things”. That’s a matter of course. How can you make it sound fluent otherwise.

  61. Zolt
    Posted August 14, 2010 at 3:31 PM | Permalink

    This is actually a game we play a lot with my coworkers when we’re bored. Take the name of a famous book or movie, and babelfish it: from English to French, then to German, then to Chinese, Spanish, and finally back to english.

    We can guess the what the original title was, like, one time out of three.

    Also: seriously, translating is HARD. Just try it at home.

  62. Posted June 28, 2011 at 3:10 AM | Permalink

    I’m sure no one is reading this any more (except maybe Pat), but I am a professional translator and a huge fan of the books. I translate from Japanese to English.

    Here’s the thing about translation: Even if the translator is very skilled (and there are a lot of poor translators out there), some styles of writing lend themselves to translation more than others. Someone like George R R Martin, for example, probably doesn’t lose a lot in translation because his style is very straightforward.

    However, the very reason I love Pat’s prose so much means that translations of his works are inevitably going to be very inferior to the original. There’s just no way around it. The lyricism and turn of phrase that is both elegant and economical, for example. And, well, the lyricism. That just doesn’t translate. Even if the translator is a skilled translator of fiction, I wouldn’t bother recommending his books to readers in foreign languages, because so much beauty would be lost.

    The plot and everything are still interesting enough for the books to sell, I’m sure, which is why the translations make economic sense to begin with. But, non-English readers are missing out on a lot. Then again, who knows what we are missing out on by not being able to read foreign books in the original.

    Take great Japanese writers like Mishima or Kawabata: don’t bother reading even good translations. They just don’t even come close. Someone like the modern writer Murakami Haruki, though, comes through just as well in English as in Japanese.

  63. Moonlight-Rose
    Posted August 26, 2011 at 1:49 PM | Permalink

    Oh my – How much I loved this blog entry!
    I read a lot in english, and there are lot of books I would never read in the german translation, cause more than half of the humor gets lost…
    And then I often have those moments when I read something translated and just think that this really isn’t the right word – but the next second I think: “But I don’t have the slightest idea what could be used instead…”
    Translating something is really, really hard! My teacher always rolled his eyes at me, when I asked which EXACTLY one word meant in some specific sentence, cause there are more German words which mean basically alike, but are just not quite the same ;)

  64. Rhia
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 2:48 AM | Permalink

    I read this post a while ago (after you linked it in the newer post concerning translation). Being a Major in English Language and Literature (and having had Latin and Spanish in High School, and thus being subjected to my fair share of translations) I was flabbergasted that someone was actually suggesting that translating is merely copying, and that machines could do it for us.
    However, if you never learned languages other than your mother tongue, I guess you might be tempted to assume such a thing.
    Well, you might be wondering why I am replying to this post now. Truth is, in reading my usual amount of book reviews, I stumbled upon one for the book: ‘Product Image
    Is That a Fish in Your Ear?’ by David Bellos, which is about Translating in all its facets.
    I of course LOVED the reference to ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, but it also brought this post back to my mind, and I thought I might mention the book in here, for people who might be interested in reading some more on the subject by a award-winning translator.

  65. Posted June 6, 2013 at 1:07 AM | Permalink

    Owwww…. I’m a translator, properly an Interpreter and I really think this job is hard, it not only requires the knowledge of the language but also of the idioms and culture, etc of ALL the languages you do, in my case is Spanish and English, and I have to say, english is a piece of cake against Spanish, I mean, do you known how many idioms it has??? for each country you have like hundreds and they (Clients) wants me to remember each one of them.

    To know, someone gets the idea of how hard it is our job, it makes it feel not soooo hard. Thank you.

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