Found in translation


If there’s one thing that’s constant in the Commonwealth, it’s the need to translate marketing and business material from one language into another. My work has often entailed creating materials in English, then getting the materials translated into Japanese, Korean, or Mandarin, and then trying, somehow, to assess the merits of the translation.

This is one realm where conventional wisdom and street-level reality don’t often mesh.

The textbook approach is to have one translator put the material into the target language as a first step. The next step is to have another translator translate the material from the target language back into the original language. The original material and the back-translation are then compared to each other for consistency. After edits are made the cycle begins anew.

There’s an elegant symmetry to the approach, right?

Well, maybe, but I haven’t seen it really work out that way. The few times I tried this method we still wound up spending a lot of time puzzling out various linguistic nuances. Having two chefs in the linguistic kitchen didn’t really improve the dish.

Furthermore, how many companies on Saipan have access to two fully-qualified translators? For that matter, how many even have access to one?

This leads to something that’s invisible in theory but that’s a big deal in reality: Many operations, especially in a small economy like Saipan’s, use an informal network to get translations done. Colleagues or friends are more likely to be used than full-bore professionals.

In these situations the coin of the realm is often goodwill and favors instead of cold hard cash.

Consequently, you’re not always going to be met with efficient professional detachment when you want to drag someone through 20 iterations of a translating project. This is doubly true when you’re questioning their interpretation of a certain word or phrase. You can burn through a lot of goodwill very quickly in these situations.

Let’s never forget that language style is subjective, and, as such, it provokes strong reactions in people, even if they’re cool-headed enough not to show it. Nobody who has any skill in a language can remain indifferent to its usage.

As a result, many translations are finally cast in stone not because they’re perfect, but because the manager of the project is approaching the limits of cooperation. A good manager can sense these things and not push too hard.

So, from what I’ve seen, we rarely finish a translation project. We merely abandon it. The trick is to structure things so that the point of abandonment falls within the region of acceptable quality.

Moving from the management of the task to the actual wordcraft, some of my early lessons came about 25 years ago when my colleagues and I sought to penetrate the Japanese tourism market.

I saw that pushing words over a linguistic barrier was an exercise in being succinct and focused. While we might enjoy waxing stylistic in our native tongue, it’s more effective to think in terms of a few bullet points if the material is going to run the gauntlet in a foreign language. Admittedly, this might not be the case if you have an unlimited budget, a deep pool of talent, and a distant deadline. However, I don’t know many people on Saipan, or, for that matter, anywhere, who have these luxuries.

Bullet points don’t necessarily have to be laid out as such. The big idea is to cull things down so that 20 percent of the potential wording will convey 80 percent of the juice. This takes more than clear writing. It demands a clear sense of priorities and the ability to stifle the urge to sound clever.

Overall, then, instead of being lost in translation, there’s actually a lot we can find in translation. It allows us to team up with people across cultures to convert differences into commonalities. That’s one skill that is never going out of style.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at His column runs every Friday.

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