The case for Translation

The case for Translation


“If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen sie Deutsch sprechen.” Willy Brandt


This quote, from former German Chancellor Willy Brandt, succinctly sums up the entire marketing thrust for translation companies the world over: If you want to reach a foreign market, the best way to do this is in their language. Expecting everybody else to adapt to you, is short-sighted and at best, not appreciated by those you are trying to influence. Translation is generally recognised as an important tool in an advertisers arsenal for attacking a specifically defined market. Or is it? Before we embark on yet another marketing driven explanation on the need for translation in the world, let’s have a brief look at the history of translation.

The word “translation” derives from the Latin “translatio”, which itself comes from trans- and from fero, which together mean “a carrying across” or “a bringing across”. The Ancient Greek term for “translation”, “metaphrasis”, or “a speaking across”, has supplied English with “metaphrase” or a literal, word for word translation. Metaphrase is a term which sits in contrast to “paraphrase”, or “a saying in other words”. Anyone who has ever used Google translate to discover how English songs are translated into foreign languages will know that literal translations can be comically off point. For those of you too busy to waste an afternoon testing this theory for yourself, please allow me to introduce you to Malinda Kathleen Reese.

Reese’s YouTube channel is called Google Translate Sings[1], and what she does is use Google Translate to turn song lyrics into foreign languages before changing them back to English and then she records herself singing them with gusto. “It started earlier this year when I put the words to ‘Let it Go’ through a number of languages and made a video which I thought was just too funny not to share”. That video has had more than 7,500,000 views. Now you can waste an afternoon enjoying her many videos of Google Translated lyrics. “Let it go, let it go, can’t hold it back anymore”, magically becomes “Give up, give up, you cannot do it back in”…

Strictly speaking, the concept of metaphrase, or “word-for-word translation” is an imperfect concept, because a given word in a given language often carries more than one meaning; and because a similar given meaning may often be represented in a given language by more than one word. Nevertheless, “metaphrase” and “paraphrase” may be useful as ideal concepts that mark the extremes in the spectrum of possible approaches to translation.

“Translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful.” Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Now, let’s start by sidestepping Mr Yevtushenko’s apparent misogyny (even for a man from a different time and different culture it’s more than a little close-minded) and focus on the second half of his quote: “If” a translation ”is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful”.  This general formulation of the central concept of translation, is as adequate as any that has been proposed since Cicero and Horace, who, in 1st Century Rome, BC, famously and literally cautioned against translating “word for word”.

Despite occasional theoretical diversity, the actual practice of translation has hardly changed since ancient times. Translators have generally shown prudent flexibility in seeking equivalents when converting a piece from one language to another. It is fair to say that modern translation calls for workers to be at home in both the source language as well as the target language, while also being adept at understanding the core topic at the centre of the piece which is being translated.

“Translators never come to rest; they are constantly in two places at the same time by building associations that carry the foreign into the known of their own language.” Rainer Schulte

The translator of the Bible into German, Martin Luther, is credited with being the first European to posit that one translates satisfactorily only toward his own language. This is a core concept in the philosophy of Euro-Com International. We only use translators who translate into their native language.

Our misogynist,  Mr. Yevtushenko, was referring to was the 17th century French phrase “les belles infidèles” to infer that translations, like women, can be either faithful or beautiful, but not both. Faithfulness is the extent to which a translation accurately renders the meaning of the source text, without distortion. Transparency, on the other hand, is the extent to which a translation appears to a native speaker of the target language to have originally been written in that language, and conforms to its grammar, syntax and idiom.

 “The translator who does not doubt on the inside is likely to raise doubt on the outside.” Russell Scott Valentino

At Euro-Com, we apply a series of criteria when it comes to choosing our translators. Competent translators need to show the following attributes:

·         a very good knowledge of the language, written and spoken, from which they are translating (the source language)

·         a native speaker command of the language into which they are translating (the target language)

·         familiarity with the subject matter of the text being translated (industrial/medical/legal etc)

·         a profound understanding of the need to achieve balance between faithful and transparent translations

·         a finely tuned sense of when to metaphrase (“translate literally”) and when to paraphrase, so as to assure true rather than spurious equivalents between the source- and target-language texts

A competent translator is not only bilingual but bicultural. A language is not merely a collection of words and of rules of grammar and syntax for generating sentences, but also a vast interconnecting system of connotations and cultural references whose mastery cannot be achieved in a short space of time. For this reason, Euro-Com International has made the conscious decision to eschew newly graduated language studies students who are non-native speakers. The complexity of the translator’s task cannot be overstated; it has been suggested that becoming an accomplished translator—after having already acquired a good basic knowledge of both languages and cultures—may require a minimum of ten years’ experience. Viewed in this light, it is a serious misconception to assume that a person who has fair fluency in two languages will, by virtue of that fact alone, be consistently competent to translate between them.

Euro-Com International cannot and will not promise you flawless translations of your documents and websites. Mistakes happen. Any company that says otherwise is promising you the moon. Steps and protocols are in place to ensure that the number of mistakes, if they cannot be eliminated entirely, are kept to a minimum. However, if mistakes are made, which bypass the controls, then Euro-Com International can promise you the best follow up service. Our project managers are trained and equipped to help you through the process of translation so that you will be more than satisfied with your end product.

“Without translation I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.” Italo Calvino

Many western companies view Africa as a market place which can be split up into one of three language markets; English, French or Portuguese. This, of course, is a vast over simplification. The diversity of languages and cultures across the continent, and the sheer quantity of people who don’t speak a colonial language as a first language demands that attention is given to “local” African languages. Given the preponderance of languages, translation services in Africa assume a critical role. In a survey run by Common Sense Advisory and Translators without Borders for African translators, nearly 95 percent of respondents felt that having access to information in local languages would have a significant and positive impact on health issues. They felt that access to information in a language which was understood properly by the majority in a region, would save lives. More than 97 percent felt such access would help people understand their legal rights. They saw professional interpretation and translation services as having the power to correct information inequality and fuel a concurrent rise in socioeconomic development throughout the continent. Translation service providers will not just open doors to markets that otherwise would have been impenetrable but they may just help that market thrive and expand, thus increasing the attractiveness of the market.


Euro-Com International is the translation partner in the Africa House London platform. If you have any requests for information on language use in Africa, or in general, please do not hesitate to contact Andrew Hickson

Andrew Hickson

Community Administrator

[1] (Malinda Kathleen Reese’s Youtube page)

Euro-Com International, the language specialist



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