After decades in the translation and localization industry, we have helped clients expand overseas by translating anything from human resource documents, OSHA translations, Amazon FBA translations, medical industry translations, HTML translations, the list goes on! But like every story, there has to be a beginning. For me, it was my own personal journey with learning a second language.
It started many years ago when I was studying Spanish for my eventual tour of duty in South America for the Peace Corps. Our cultural training had ended and it was time to get serious about improving language skills for those of us who were going to be volunteering in a country where English was not the official language. Although I had studied Spanish for two years in university, my real life experience speaking the language was nil. Other volunteers and I who were going to Latin America were sent individually to Puerto Rico for six weeks of intensive language training. I wound up in a small village called Coamo, located in the south central part of the island. I was the only volunteer sent to this location. Others were scattered about the island in small groups or if married, in pairs.
I had been working hard on perfecting my grammar, trying to piece together complicated sentences, so as to appear accomplished in Spanish. A favorite thing for me to do was go to a small restaurant from where I was staying at a small clinic and eat with some of the locals. One day at lunch, I was feeling quite confident in my ability to appear fluent, so I approached the owner, who also served as cook, waitress and cashier. She looked directly at me, as she usually did every afternoon and said “¿Qué quieres comer?” (What do you want to eat?). I puffed up my chest and said “Me gustaría pedir un tazón de sopa del día y por favor que le ponga un huevo.” (I would like to order a bowl of soup of the day and would you please put in an egg”) She leaned forward across the counter with her face inches from mine and with a sly smile said, “sopa con huevo”.
This might have been the most important Spanish lesson I ever learned. She replaced my 17 words with 3 very short ones. I was both humbled and grateful at the same time. These long, convoluted sentences might be appropriate for literature, but for everyday conversation, it’s better to keep it simple and to the point.
I find a lot of similar uses of language every day as clients contact us or send us documents for translation. It’s not our position to tell them how to write. However, if their verbiage distracts from the intended meaning of the document, we will point this out and suggest revisions to make the translation more reliable and effective.
Another key example of when keeping it simple is preferred deals with sentence length. A sentence in English is much shorter that its translated pair in Spanish or many other languages. If the amount of text gets too long, it creates formatting issues when our graphic design team needs to go back and replace the original text with the newly translated text. This holds true with video subtitles and voice overs as well.
How do you know if your document language will be too long for translation? The best way to find out is to contact TSI for an estimate, quote or just advice. We are more that happy to walk you through the steps of the process to determine if our services are right for your business.
In closing, my message to future and present corporate writers: “put some love into your work and remember to KISS.”
Of the five following languages, which one has the most native speakers?
Chinese (Mandarin) has 1.2 billion native speakers
Spanish comes in second with 400 million native speakers
English comes in third with 360 million native speakers
Hindi ranks number 4 with about 330 million native speakers, but it’s complicated
Arabic comes in last, but like Hindi, it’s also complicated
The above figures are estimates and the numbers while close, are always changing. To add to the confusion, languages such as Hindi and Arabic can have such dramatic variations, that people who speak what they consider to be the same language are often not able to fully understand each other. Here we are talking about “native” speakers. If we consider people who speak an additional language, the numbers change significantly. For example, the total number of people who speak English fluently (not necessarily native) increases to more than half a billion, thanks to English being at the forefront of global business relationships.
Which language has the most words?
Most scholars would agree that English has the most words. However this can be quite tricky to calculate. English comes out on top because it borrows many of its words from the Germanic and Latin languages. It is also constantly creating new words with its emphasis on science, medical and technical inventions. The problem we encounter is, what constitutes a word? And if a single word has more than one meaning should this be considered two words or more? Let’s take the word ‘bear’ for example. Here are a few of its possible meanings.
*I couldn’t bear to see that movie again.
*She will get married and bear a child.
*A bear was spotted behind my neighbor’s house.
*The walls were not strong enough to bear the weight of the roof.
*Next year that tree will bear fruit.
*His excuse doesn’t bear close examination.
*I’m not going to bear the blame.
*That statement doesn’t bear repeating.
*Bear to the left or the boat will hit the buoy.
So what happens in the translation process when there is a word in English with no corresponding word in the target language? This takes us to the topic of: “transcreation”.
As currently understood and used, transcreation deals primarily with articles and copy written for the advertising industry. It is used to create an understanding of the meaning of the message and not simply a translation of the individual words. Let’s look at some common business slogans that word for word have little meaning in a foreign language, without being transcreated into a slogan that would reflect the meaning in that other language. I will give examples of “transcreation” in the world of advertising in the forthcoming blog.
Case Study – A Word is Born
Well, it wasn’t actually born the way puppies or fish or birds are born, but rather invented, or just plain made up.
In 1947 John Robinson Pierce, while working for Bell Telephone Laboratories, invented an electronic device he named a “transistor”. It replaced many of the functions of vacuum tubes, which back in the day were commonly used in radios. The device transfers an electrical current across a resistor, hence the term transfer + resistor, shortened to transistor. When you go to a global translation website today to find out what this word is called in different languages you’ll find that the following languages adopted the word without changing the spelling:
Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Italian, Portuguese, Danish, Swedish, Turkish, Catalan, Czech, Romanian, Estonian, Filipino, Hawaiian, Hmong, Malay, Norwegian, Scots Gaelic, Somali, Sudanese and Welsh.
Other countries have incorporated the same word, but changed the spelling slightly to conform to their specific pronunciation.
Croatian = transistor
Slovak = tranzistor
Finnish = transistori
Hungarian = tranzisztor
Polish = tranzystor
Romanian = transistor
I didn’t include the character-based languages such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc. because they use phonetic symbols to express the sound of the spoken word.
Since the beginning of human time, families, tribes, villages and countries have created words to define their world, express their feelings, thoughts and ideas. With the advent of the internet, jet travel and international business, the interchange of languages is growing and changing at a rate faster than any other time in history.
So what does this matter to us as translation industry professionals? There’s a couple key takeaways from the concept of transcreation and how it relates to our business. First and foremost, transcreation renders computer translations unusable. This is why here at TSI, we never use computer translation applications in the process of our work. Second, it shows the importance of hiring the right translator for the job. For example, when dealing with transcreated words relating to a specific industry, it’s essential to match that project with a native translator well versed in the lingo or jargon pertaining to said industry.
Because of our close to 30 years of experience working with very niche markets, our team of translators is ready to handle language subtleties with ease. If you have a need for translation of documents that are unique, don’t worry- we can handle them at TSI. There’s numerous ways to contact us for an estimate.
Very few languages use as many idioms as English, where they are found quite frequently even in business correspondence. At TSI, we see thousands of documents each year of all sorts of different content. Here are several idiom examples that have come across our desk.
Most experienced professional translators understand these common idioms and know if there are similar expressions in their native language. In addition, we thoroughly review every document intended for translation while looking for these phrases that have the potential to create misunderstandings. The problems arise when clients rely on software to translate their documents. Here is one of my favorites.
I’m pulling your leg.
We know that this means I’m joking with you or that I’m teasing you. The Spanish version of this is: Te estoy tomando el pelo, which translates back into English as “I’m taking your hair.” It’s as far away from the intended meaning in Spanish as I’m pulling your leg is in English.
So how does one avoid confusion or misunderstanding when venturing into the world of idioms?
Know your translator, and if you don't, feel free to reach out. We are always available for a consultation or a quote regardless if your documents contain idioms or not.
The absolute need to use only native speakers as translators
There are many translation agencies that use recently graduated language students with a proficiency in a foreign language in order to keep their operating costs to a minimum. Generally speaking, these students, with fluency in a second language, have something to offer in the translation business, but not necessarily working in a target language that is different from their native speech. The nuances and subtleties in all languages can create hurdles for anyone trying to learn a new form of speech. When someone tries to translate into a language that is not native to them, the result can be anything from humorous to devastating. It’s a common error to think that a word that sounds the same in two different languages means the same thing. However, “it’s not necessarily so”. I found out the hard way.
Shortly after graduating from college I joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to a public health program in La Paz, Bolivia. I had taken 4 years of Spanish in college and had additional language training before arriving in South America. I earned a Spanish language competency score of 4.5, which at the time was considered fluent, but not native. A week after arrival, our group of volunteers was invited to a local university to meet the students and tell them about our backgrounds and the programs we were involved with. The school auditorium was packed with over 500 students. One by one volunteers walked onto the stage, were handed a microphone and addressed the audience in Spanish. When it came my turn, I walked up the rickety wooden stairs, reached for the microphone and inadvertently dropped it on the floor. As I picked it up, red faced and all (I wanted to say, excuse me; I’m embarrassed), I said in my best Spanish possible, “Discúlpame, estoy embarazado.” The entire audience erupted in laughter. Now I was really embarrassed, not knowing what I had said to create such an uproar. The Peace Corps Director leaned over and whispered in my ear. “You just told them that you’re pregnant.”
Such are the perils of knowing a language, but not quite enough to avoid potentially embarrassing situations. There are many similar sound alike words called homophones in many languages. For example, ropa in Spanish means clothing and sopa means soup. In French pain means bread and pin means pine.
In my case, the error was harmless, but when translating a document or a website, a seemingly simple mistake can cause equipment to malfunction, personal injury if operating instructions are misunderstood or a company website to look amateurish casting a bad light on the company’s image. Avoid these potential problems by using a professional agency with a long history of successful translations. At TSI, we take pride in using native speakers as our translators. It helps avoid simple mistakes and saves money for our clients down the road.
Contact us if you’re in the market for document translation. We can help guide you through the process step-by-step and explain what makes our business model and team unique in the translation industry.
The debate regarding the origin of language has been going on for several millennia. Within the past few years however, linguists have spread out across the globe looking for evidence of primitive languages. One of the more compelling areas of discussion is the continuing prevalence of languages based on whistling, perhaps whose origins sprang from the imitation of bird songs. Below is a link to an BBC Future article called “The beautiful languages of the people who talk like birds”.
What can we learn from this and how does it apply to our contemporary world? Like the people who talk like birds, we as modern day humans tend to alter our speech patterns, vocabulary, and accent based on our neighbors and local community. This explains the evolution of the American accent versus British, Scottish, Kiwi, etc.
But accents usually don’t alter how we translate the written word. Just like speech, there have been slight adjustments in sentence structure and spelling throughout the course of the english language. For example, the word “color” as we would spell it in America is different that what the folks on the other side of the pond write which is “colour”. Now how did this come to be? With this one- it’s political.
Noah Webster (yes, of dictionary fame) was a famous lexicographer who, when America was establishing herself as an independent entity from England, developed updated spellings of certain words to make them more unique. Color is one of these. Grammarly.com dives in even deeper here.
As the owner of a translation company, it’s subtleties like this that are extremely important when understanding where your client’s final product will land in the world. Spanish in Spain is drastically different than Mexico or Puerto Rico. It’s these little subtleties that make a translated document read “native” as opposed to “foreign” and one of the reasons we strive to use translators whose native tongue best fits our client’s needs. Good luck doing that with a computer!
Considering the popularity of emoticons, emojis and animojis, who knows- perhaps someday we will be translating those as well.
Learn more about Translation Services International and the services we offer.
I’ve often heard clients ask, “What’s the most important thing I need to understand about translation? Is it the size of the project or the difficulty of the language or the country where the document will be used, etc.”
The short answer is, none of the above. In a few words, translation involves converting the source language (eg. English) into a target language (eg. Chinese). I use Chinese as an example because it is one of the fastest growing languages in our field of work and it comes with specific issues that will be discussed later on. The answer to the main question is the source language. You’ve most likely heard the expression “garbage in, garbage out (GIGO).” Although this typically relates to the scientific and mathematical world, it also has significance when it comes to translations.
Making Sense Out of Nonsense
I’m not writing about nonsense in a pejorative or derogatory way, but rather to indicate writing that is not understandable. It’s like reading a paragraph, a sentence or even a phrase and not knowing what the writer is attempting to convey. This happens more often than not, and for this reason, among others, at Translation Services International we thoroughly proofread every document that comes in. If we are given a document in English that for whatever reason we can’t understand, how could we possibly expect a translator, whose native language is not English to understand it. That’s why it is imperative and absolutely necessary for us to take the time to make sure that we don’t have garbage or poorly written documents going into the process. What are the causes of bad source documents?
In this business there’s no room for garbage in, garbage out. If we don’t understand it, it doesn’t get delivered to our team of translators. For those reading this blog who are writers and want to hone your proofreading skills, I’ll be adding a section called, “How to prepare your documents for translation into any and all languages.” Feel free to reach out for a quote.
Francis Semmens is the founder of TSI and author of all blog posts with a focus on translation for clients and translators alike.