Here are a few quick trivia questions: Did the Chevy Nova sell badly in Mexico because no va translates to ‘Doesn’t go’ in Spanish? Did a Japanese video game become an Internet meme in the early 21st century, spawning the phrase ‘All your base are belong to us’? Did President John F. Kennedy literally say, ‘I am a jelly donut’ in Berlin in 1963?
The answers are no, yes, and depends on your point of view.
The point is, translation is a tricky business. If you need a foreign language translated, the best practice is to seek a translator who is a native speaker of the source language. I’ve learned this the hard way.
Languages are Complex Creatures
Every language is a maze of subtleties. English has words borrowed from other languages, numerous homophones, and idioms that even the native speakers have trouble explaining, but comprehend effortlessly. Mandarin incorporates several regional dialects, and many languages incorporate subtle inflection to convey different meanings using the same words.
You may be able to walk around Paris and do fine with your excellent French (and if you can, I resent you tremendously, as I spent a year trying to learn French and could barely ask for the cheque without getting a smirk from the Parisians), but that does not mean you instantly grasp that the phrase ‘ca plane pour moi’ (literally, it is gliding for me) conveys the sentiment ‘This works for me’.
The Danger of Overly Literal Translations
Overly literal translations are worse than worthless; they can be damaging and dangerous.
Dangerous to reputations, that is. In one of my books, I decided to include a few characters who spoke different languages. None of them were major characters; they were all in the background and I thought it added a nice sense of global complexity to the story.
Instead of hiring someone to do some quick translation or seeking out a friend who could speak the languages in question, I used an online translation service. After all, the main audience for my book was English speaking, and the foreign languages were just for show anyway.
Sure enough, though, a few months after publication I started to get emails. Readers love to nitpick a book, and I kind of enjoy sparring with people about plot twists, character development, and other aspects of the book. But I did not enjoy having several people point out how terrible my foreign languages were.
One person told me the German was, in a sense, correct, but that no human being would ever say something the way my background characters did. It was somewhat embarrassing, but it was a good lesson – going forward I’m going to take the time to have an actual native speaker translate things for me, instead of a computer program.
Or, since I write science fiction novels, I might just imagine the future is a place where everyone speaks English, and not risk any bad translations at all!