John Weiss

1.  The Tricky Business of Translation

Translation is not an easy task. You may be fluent in a language, yet still have difficulty translating it. This should make sense to you. To speak a language well, you must strive for rapid communication and be willing to embarass yourself. To translate well, however, accuracy overrides speed. You must furthermore know both languages in great grammatical detail. By "both languages," I mean the language of the original document and the language to which you translate that original. When one of those languages is your native tongue, the potential for errors skyrockets. After all, we all think we know our native languages in great detail....

Put another way, to translate well, you not only need to be fluent in both languages, you also need some familiarity with linguistics. This doesn't mean only multi-lingual linguists can translate. It simply means the rest of us need to do more work... and be more careful.

As of version 1.0.*, LyX now has translations of the manuals into several languages. These translations are in varying stages of completion. Since I can speak German fluently (on most days), I decided to give das deutsche Übersetzung a look. Some parts showed the telltale signs of literal translation. Those passages, while correct, simply didn't flow smoothly, didn't "read" quite right. Other parts, in contrast, were not literal. Instead, the translation captured the intent of the originals better than the originals did!

I said in a recent email to the LyX Developers' Mailing List that translation is a very tricky business. In the very same email message, I inadvertently gave an example. Consider the following German sentence:

Ich kenne hauptsächlich den akademischen Schreibstil
des germanistischen Fachbereichs.

Loosly translated into English, this reads:

I primarily know the writing style for the academic field
of germanic language, literature, and culture.

The literal translation, however, is:

I know primarily the academic writing style of the Germanistic field of study.

I suppose I could have explained the word "Germanistic." I would have written instead, "[...] of the field of study of germanic language, literature, and culture." Either way, the literal translation is unwieldy. It means exactly the same as the loose translation. It's even grammatically correct. Ask any native English speaker which one sounds correct, and she'll pick the loose translation.

The manuals are all liberally seasoned with humor. Humor, however, is nearly impossible to translate. Even jokes told in person sometimes won't translate. I have a prime example of this, within two cultures with a common heritage: American and German. [1]

2.  Lost in Translation

My alma mater, Middlebury College, and the Universität Mainz have a long-standing relationship of academic exchange. Middlebury students would matriculate at Mainz as part of a semester or year study-abroad program. When they had a substantial number of "Midd kids" in a lecture, the Mainz professors would hold an additional "tutorium" for them. I was in such a lecture, in the area of "Volkskunde."

The reason why the Mainz professors offered tutoriums to the Midd kids is itself a lesson in cultural difference. In lectures of any kind, Americans sit silent, taking notes on the lecture. If one has a question, one raises one's hand, or says, "Excuse me," and waits for the professor to respond. For the students to talk to one another during the lecture, even to ask one another a question, is considerer rude. German students, however, regularly whisper to each other, discussing the lecture or asking each other questions while the professor is speaking. As long as this side-dialogue between students does not disturb anyone or dominate the entirety of the class, no one thinks anything of it.

Let's return to "Volkskunde." It's a subfield of "Germanistic" that concerns itself with the cultural anthropology of Germans, specifically folklore, traditional dress, farmhouse architecture, furniture get the idea. There were about five of us Midd kids in this particular course and the tutorium as well. For about half the semester, we wondered why Dr. F. (not his real name of course) even held the tutorium. He seemed utterly disinterested in it, and us. Then, about mid-semester, he suddenly repeated his previous sentence with utter exasperation, punctuating it with the German-equivalent of a "Get it?" It suddenly dawned on us: he was telling a joke. We got it, and burst out laughing. Dr. F. smiled a relieved smile. He had been spending the entire semester cracking jokes (a fact we realized later) to these seemingly humorless Americans who did nothing but sit there and diligently transscribe his every word. He had been using all of the verbal cues that say, "This is a joke," ... to another German. Americans use different cues, however. Within short order, Dr. F. figured out how to use those American verbal cues, and the tutorium became much more fun for everyone.

If deciphering the verbal cues for humor is hard to do face-to-face, how can one hope to translate jokes or witty remarks that are dead on a page? Translation is a very tricky business, indeed.

3.  The American Way

There is a second problem with a direct translation of the original LyX Documentation. The original major contributors are mostly American, with Australians and Canadians comprising most of the rest. These three nations have a common cultural trait: we are very friendly with strangers. Americans, in fact, have a strong cultural desire to be everyone's friend. Formality in everyday interactions is seen as at best haughty, at worst hostile. Writing that addresses the reader but contains no emotion is considered dry and boring.

When I began the Documentation Project, I wanted to create "un-manuals," manuals that weren't boring. They would engaged the reader, as if in friendly conversation. I realize now, however, that the LyX Documentation engage the reader as if it were a friendly conversation held in America. Or Australia. Or Canada. Now, this won't be a problem in the English-speaking world, by and large. A direct, literal translation of this style of writing, however, may not work. It may strike the reader, in another country speaking a different tongue, as overly friendly. In some parts of the world, that excessive friendliness is inappropriate and considered rude.

So, now we have a third pitfall of overly direct translation. Translating a style or tone literally may have the opposite effect in another country. One must translate the intent of the style, the impact the original author wanted to have, not the tools he used.

4.  Preposition Pitfalls

Most European languages have yet another problem, a funny part of speech called a preposition. One uses them in combination with nouns to indicate relationship or state. Some languages, like Finnish, change the case of the noun in place of using a preposition. Hungarian, being in the same language family as Finnish, may do something similar. [2] Most of us who speak a European language take them for granted. As a result, we forget that prepositions are untranslatable.

Yes, prepositions are untranslatable. They have no direct translation from one European language to another. Don't believe me? Let's look at an example: "in". This preposition we all inherited from Latin. The German "in", however, translates to the English "in", "from" or "to", depending on usage. Going from English to French, "in" can become, amongst other things, "dans" and "á" (or should that be "a"?). The situation gets worse for some of the other prepositions.

Pick up your MyMotherTongue-to-English dictionary. Look up any preposition in your language. More often than not, it will translate to more than one English one. Pick one of those, and look it up in the English side of the dictionary. Now pick one of the translations given back into your native language. There will likely be more than one! Now flip back to the other side of the dictionary. Keep repeating this process; you will quite likely conduct a strange walk through your dictionary. [3]

As I said, translation is a very tricky business.

5.  Idiom's Delight

In every language, human beings use idioms. In every language, those idioms share a common property. Decompose any idiom into its constituent words, look at the meaning of those words, and there is no way to reconstruct the idiom. In other words, the word-for-word interpretation of any idiom makes no sense whatsoever. Unless you have a dictionary specifically for translating English-language idioms, give up any hope of translating them.

Now, for a few idioms, just for fun!

If an American exclaims that someone is "dumber than a sack of hammers," it's pretty obvious what they're saying. But what about the verb, "to knock," applied to a person? One Brit may say to another, "I'll knock you up around 7:30," to indicate he'll be visiting the other's apartment at 7:30. In America, however, if one student says to another, "Did you hear? The class president knocked up his girlfriend," they're describing someone's impending — and unplanned — parenthood. If a German exclaims, "Ich glaub' mich knutscht ein Elch," (literal translation: I believe an elk is smooching me) — well, you're on you're own here!

6.  Notes

Believe it or not, my non-American colleagues, it's true! There has always been a healthy and steady migration of Germans to the United States, dating back to the beginning. 200 years ago, during the founding of my country, the state of Pennsylvania seriously considered making German its official language.
Note from John Weiss: I don't know this for sure. Anyone care to verify this?
Note from John Weiss: I speak from experience, having inadvertently performed this excercise on more than one occasion!