How to Translate ANYTHING

AnythingThanks to the Internet, we can switch between terminology databases, dictionaries, glossaries, and instant translation tools in just a couple of hyperlink clicks. We also have a wide range of professional resources — the translation and localization sector enjoys an abundance of generalists and subject matter experts as well as supporting technology in countries around the world.

With so many translation resources available at our fingertips, however, it is easy to get lost among the options. So how do we tap into these resources when we want to get something — anything! — translated?

Here are three things to remember when you want to get the right translation:

Languages Are Local

"Say something in French." Well, define "French." Do you mean the French of Port-au-Prince, Haiti; the French of Paris, France; the French of Yamoussoukro, Côte d' Ivoire; or some other French entirely?

The notion of locale-specific language is not too surprising when you think about it. Consider, for example, how different English can be just between British and American versions. You'll "take a vacation" in the United States but you'll "go on holiday" in the United Kingdom. The sport you call football in Dallas will not be the same sport called football in Manchester.

That is to say, being specific about the locale is vital to your translation work, especially when you want your brand to appear "native" to local consumers.

Languages Are Subjective

In the same vein, translators — machine or human — should be made mindful of audience. The right linguistic choices for a translation will be highly subjective.

In some languages, there are formal and informal versions — a so called T-V distinction — whereby pronouns are determined by social status, situation, and relationship, among other factors. French, Italian, German, and Spanish, for example, are languages that have such a distinction.

While this goes farther than whether you would refer to someone by first name or not, you can readily understand how strange it would be to ask "How are you today, Mr. Livingston?" if Mr. Livingston were your beloved husband. In the same respect, using "Whaddup, Mike?" to greet a new customer on a sales call would probably kill off your chance at acquiring new business.

Yes, there is evidence that these rules are falling away, in some part due to the influence of the Internet in general and social media specifically. Nevertheless, and even when using a professional translation company, it pays to know these linguistic distinctions. That's because when you know the rules, you know too when they are best broken. The same rule that says you should be formal in German might not apply to a marketing campaign targeting Berlin's young and hip tech startup culture, for example. But you have to know your target audience to get that right.

Languages Are Thematic

Of course, the language used within a given community is different from the language used without. In American English we know that "business speak" is not "legalese," which is also not the language of academic conferences, medical publications, nor a plumber's handbook.

Jargon — those words that are thematically native to a given sector — works as a linguistic shortcut. These in-community words and phrases cut through the verbiage to get to the damn point.

Images too can convey the right messages to the right audience. A poster featuring a pair of ruby-red slippers will have meaning for an American film buff in the same way that a picture of Godzilla would for Japanese film fans. The same can be said for the textual and visual clues of any sector.

That means, naturally, that the best translation from one source language to another target language will be both (a) a native speaker of the target language and (b) specialists of the target sector.

 

By keeping these factors in mind, you can best evaluate what tools and resources will serve your need. Want to translate your English love letter for the German you met on your first ever Oktoberfest? Google Translate it and he'll probably forgive that you used the formal Sie instead of the informal du. Want to write to the German business leaders you met later that month at a medical devices trade fair in Munich? Better that you find a company with expertise in translation for the life sciences industry.

Do you have some of your own translation fundamentals to share? Add them in the comments!