Thursday, October 20, 2011

Reverse translation and interpretation

If you’re reading this blog you may already know things about translation and interpreting and therefore this post might be obvious for you. Or maybe you don’t know anything about these subjects, because you’re a “dancing reader”.

Anyway, I am here to write about reverse translation and interpretation. You know, it’s this thing when you write a translation or produce a speech from your mother-tongue into one of the languages you have learnt during your life. In my case, this would be reading in Spanish and translating into English, French, German or whatever. And the same when it comes to interpreting: I listen to a speech in Spanish and I talk in French or English (I can’t even think of German in this case).

I just want you to know that… this thing exists, and it has a name, but it shouldn’t. Translators and interpreters work with their mother-tongue as an active language, and the rest are their passive languages. This means that they should always translate and interpret into their own language (in my case, into Spanish). I am fully aware that this is not exactly how the real world works, but I also know that it is what happens in most cases.

Why am I telling you this? Well, because, as a student of Translation and Interpreting, I have been asked more than once to translate things into English or French. Or even worse: FROM English TO French. My first reaction to this is usually something like: “wait, you want me to do WHAT?” and then I explode in rage, saying that I can’t do that, that it is impossible and blah, blah, blah. My “client” would say things like: “but why not?! You’re almost a translator, aren’t you?” So my second reaction is: “oh, ok. You don’t know WHY I can’t do that!” Because I DO speak many languages. I do, and you know it. You know I can read books in other languages. You know that I can go to a foreign country and speak with the people and that I can listen to the radio in there and understand it! Yes, I can. Wow, that’s awesome, yeah! Well, let me then explain why I can’t do the work you’re asking me to do.

  1. When you're doing a reverse translation (or interpretation) you are never completely sure of what you are writing (or saying). When you’re writing your own essay in a foreign language, you will surely find difficulties, but you can overcome them by writing something different or by not writing anything at all. But wait! What happens when it is a translation? You can’t change what the original text said, and obviously eliminating sentences is not advisable at all! So what do you do? See? You have to find a way to solve the problem, and it can obviously not be the best option. Actually, and using my little experience, I can almost assure you that it WON’T be the best option. From a native’s eyes, there is always room for improvement!
  1. If you really care about doing your translation properly, you will have to check EVERY SINGLE SENTENCE out. I have read a ba-zillion novels in French and I am pretty sure I can speak and write it quite well. But still, I need to check out everything I write. I have to make researches of frequency simply to make sure if I’m right. Even in those (rare) cases when I KNOW I am right, there’s always a tiny, minuscule possibility of being wrong. What do I do? I google!
  1. You will never, ever be able to know a foreign language as well as a native speaker. They grew up with it. They read their first books in that language and their parents and teachers taught them everything using that language. They will always be able to find this “something” in your text which just doesn’t “sound right”.
  1. Oh, and the culture! What is the culture you know best? Yours, isn’t it? And you don’t even know everything about it. Haven’t you heard some days ago an expression in your own language that you had never heard before? Well, I have. Many of them, actually! And I also learnt a word that people use in Extremadura, but not in León. Translation and Interpreting are about expressing ideas in other languages, not just words. You have to be perfectly capable of understanding your own culture. What if there is a sentence without connotations in a language but you know it will surely offend someone if you keep it with the same words in the target language? Or even worse: what if you DON’T know that it will offend someone?
  1. This one is related to interpreting. The situation is even worse when you are interpreting, and so much worse when it’s simultaneous interpreting. People with more than one first language are very rare. If you have two, it means that you have the same level of knowledge in both languages. And if you are an interpreter, you have to know your first language(s) very well, so you should be able to speak in different registers without much trouble. If you only have one active language (like normal people who are not interpreting gods), it will be very difficult for you to produce a correct speech in a foreign language, because you won’t really have time to wonder if what you’re saying is completely right or not!
  1. And finally, translators are not human dictionaries, ok?! So stop asking them how to say lenocinio, palimpsesto and oclorancia in English; because they might not even know that they are in Spanish! They are not human dictionaries: they are humans that know which dictionaries to use!

I hope things are clearer now!

PS.: I’m not even going to tell you how many times I have used the dictionary or Google to write this blogpost. And I know there are mistakes. I’m so sure of it! ;)


  1. You are SO right! People just can't understand that I DON'T know the translation of every single word of the English language...

  2. Very interesting! Knowing another language is very difficult. The only thing I see about your post is maybe that you used "learnt" instead of "learned". Learned feels more natural to me-maybe I'm wrong. I don't use English right all the time either and it's my language lol. From how you write though-I would think you were a native English speaker:)

  3. Thisthisthisthisthis! Sometimes when I was at uni they used to make us translate from English into French and it was always completely and utterly horrible because you just can't get the language that isn't yours to 'flow' in the same way.

    I'm not a translator, I just have a degree in languages, but people still seem to think I am some kind of walking human dictionary. Err, el non, people, el non.


  4. @Anonymous Haha yes, Maria!! That happens to me very often! I was fed up, so I though this post could be useful! =)

  5. @Back to the Barre Thank you!!! =) Actually I had a doubt about learned or learnt. I checked it out and it seems that it's what the use in England... or something! I'm not sure, but I chose it because we learn British English in Spain =)

    Which other languages do you use? ^^

  6. @Nelliw Exactly! You're so right! You may know how to speak a foreign language but sometimes you have to check things out! It happens all the time.

    We have to make sure that people realise we're not dictionaries!!


  7. I don't know any other languages except English. I know how to read Hebrew but need to look at a translation mostly... I always wanted to learn a couple languages. I love Spanish and Hebrew - just never could get to learning them. I couldn't grasp French in school and did terrible in it. I think you have to have a talent to learn languages plus all the studying.

    I can definitely see how you would get frustrated with people assuming you can translate or define anything. I may be wrong but it might be that people just don't know what you can or can't do. It might just be ignorance on other people's part-not knowing or understanding what really is involved in translating/interpreting. I know that would be the reason for me-if I asked you to translate something you couldn't:)

  8. I can't even spell my own name... I shall hand back my linguist card immediately ;)

  9. @Nellie Hahaha and I didn't realise, so I kept the typo when I wrote the reply. Shame on us! =D

  10. Deaf people will find it hard to understand by lip reading alone. Moreover, it will consume a lot of time if they converse through written means. This is why it’s very important to have an interpreter around. By the way, I see that you’re a freelance translator and interpreter. Are you certified? If not, why not become one? Being a certified interpreter and translator will give you greater benefits.

  11. Hi Nerea, I hope you do not mind belated comments. I am a translater, too (Spanish, English>German). I agree with what you said about reverse translations. I do not like them, either, but from time to time I have to translate from German into English or Spanish. The company I work for won't pay another translator's salary, so I just have to put up with it. I also translate for a Spanish dance company sometimes (freelance work). Once they even asked me to translate from Spanish to English. It was urgent and they could not find anyone familiar with dance terminology, also the choreographer/principal dancer is a close friend of mine, so I did it, but I am not proud of the job I did. (I am not going to tell you which company it is, because I do not want you to read my bad translation.)
    Your last paragraph made me smile. You know, I hate it, when people ask me: what is xyz in German? One day, some friends wanted to know the meaning of "accesible". Now, there are at least five possible German translations, depending on the context, but try to explain that to someone who is not a linguist and/or translator.

  12. Sorry, I meant to say "translator". It seems like I should hand back my linguist's card, too.