The perils of translation

At a meeting with Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker during yesterday’s NATO summit, Donald Trump reportedly said “the Germans are bad, very bad” for selling millions of cars to the US.

That comment, directed at a supposed NATO ally, is damaging enough. But when it hit the press last night, it was mangled into something even worse. Some US commentators on Twitter overnight were reporting that Trump said “the Germans are evil, very evil” – putting them on a par with ISIS-inspired terrorists.

The confusion arose because the comments, being targeted at Germany, were first reported in the German-language press (Der Spiegel) under a headline that translated them into German as “die Deutschen sind böse, sehr böse”. Presumably someone saw the German article (or the headline) and translated “böse” back into English as “evil” (indeed I even saw a screen-shot of Spiegel-Online with this translation – though possibly generated automatically). The journalist from Der Spiegel then confirmed that Trump had in fact said “bad”, and this was made clear in both the German version and the later full translation of the article.

Was Der Spiegel wrong to translate “bad” into German as “böse”? Not really. Trump uses two adjectives – bad and amazing – to describe 99% of the spectrum, so “bad” covers a multitude of sins. Perhaps a more neutral translation might have been “schlecht”, but “böse” also has a pretty wide range: my dictionary lists “bad, nasty, evil, wicked, naughty” (as well as its other sense of “angry, cross”).

Nor was it strictly wrong to translate “böse” back into English as “evil” – it probably ranks as the most common English equivalent.

For me, the episode illustrates some important principles about translation.

First, think before you translate. Trump doesn’t do languages, so he’s unlikely to speak German. (And even if he did, why would he be speaking German to Tusk and Juncker?) So he didn’t say “die Deutschen sind böse”, he said something in English. And it makes sense to find out what he actually said in English rather than doing a back-translation.

This is the “think before you translate” principle at its most basic. At a deeper level, it means it’s good practice to make sure you know something about what you’re translating rather than simply being a word-machine. So, for example, before translating a Merkel speech, I will aim to have a basic understanding of the political context.

Second, translating a phrase from one language into another and then back again doesn’t necessarily get you back to where you started. It’s possible to think about this mathematically: languages don’t have a one-to-one correspondence, so there is no such thing as a perfect translation, only a set of approximations to the original, which may be better or worse on various parameters (literal accuracy, stylistic facility, emotive power, etc). So, if English is translated into German, and then back again into English, the error term is compounded.

But I prefer to think about translation as an art (or perhaps a craft) rather than a science. Words have nuance, their meanings are fuzzy (think clouds, not lego bricks) and can be elusive, especially in combination. In the absence of Douglas Adams’ Babel Fish, tools such as “Google-translate” may be helpful in a largely monoglot world, but they don’t substitute for a deep understanding of each language, its speakers and its cultural setting.

A good illustration of this is the word “fair”, which has recently been appropriated into German. Its meaning in German is given in some dictionaries simply as “fair”. But the English word is a very broad-spectrum adjective: from the child’s complaint “that’s not fair” to “fair taxation”, with a lot of more neutral ground between. When Angela Merkel uses “fair” to describe her ambition for the Brexit negotiations, I sense she means something more specific and quite nuanced – possibly best captured as the spirit of “fair play”.

As we head into those Brexit negotiations – and with the experience of the Brexit dinner behind us – we need to be alert to such nuances, and to the potential scope for confusion and even mischief if the basic principles of translation are forgotten.


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