Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Between the lines

Translation is so much more than a word-by-word rendering of a text from one language to another.  The translator is often called to be a cross-cultural specialist.  In a world supposedly made “smaller” electronically, there are still so many moments when a cultural difference pops up on the horizon, and the translator becomes a sort of Tour Guide, explaining a foreign terrain dotted with custom and history and politics, like so many impressive buildings on the skyline.

How do you explain to an American Project Manager who takes calls at all hours on a cellphone, for whom the lines between workday and private life are constantly blurred, that the contact in France is either a “juilletiste” or an “aoûtien” and will be on vacation for the entire month of July or August?  The month of May in France this year had no less than four legal holidays, two of which are tied to the Catholic calendar.  Ascension Thursday is a four-day holiday, since “le pont” [making the bridge through Friday to the weekend] is the standard practice.  November 1st is All Saints’ Day, another national 4-day weekend.  My French family will drive out to the country to decorate Papy and Mamy’s graves, one day after Americans raise the dead in the streets trick-or-treating.  Either way, it seems the beginning of autumn is the time to reflect on mortality.

Metrics for evaluation, another cultural stumbling block, are learned at an early age in school.  American clients don’t understand that a Frenchman will be reluctant to rate a product or service a “10” out of ten possible points.  School work in France is graded on a twenty-point scale and absolutely no student ever receives a score of 20 out of 20.  A score of 12/20 is acceptable, yet in the U.S., an equivalent 60% is a failing grade.  Americans aim for “A’s” and can aspire to an A+.  We are cheerleaders, fond of the pat on the back and a declaration of “great job”!  On a French report card, when the teacher adds a comment of “assez bien” or “pretty good”, that is a respectable outcome, even though “assez” can also be translated as the lukewarm “sufficient”.  To add to the student’s stress, the French grade report clearly indicates both the best and the worst score attained by individuals in the class, making the whole process comparative and thereby more competitive.  Imagine the humiliation of having your personal score in Column One of your report card being identical to the “worst in class” in the next column!  And the number of students in the class is also indicated, to further calculate the depth of your disgrace.

One of the most difficult assignments I have had was to interpret a motivational speaker.  I had listened to his kind before: a wannabe stand-up comic, fond of spicing his monologue with regional jargon, liberally dosed with slang intended to wake up the audience, and embellished with sports metaphors for male-bonding with the suits in the audience.  The interpreter doesn’t have the time to explain the intricacies of baseball to a French audience who wants to know what is meant by “pinch hitting” or “it came at me right out of left field.”  My compassionate soul wants to run up to the speaker and explain that some of his audience is not laughing at the right moments because they didn’t understand the reference to an American sitcom.  Yet, at the same time, I’m culturally embarrassed that my French-speaking audience from third world countries has no frame of reference for the fable they are hearing through translation.  The guy at the podium is trying to preach a message of personal responsibility as the key element to success.  Having ordered a subordinate to send a can of caramel popcorn to a client, the penitent businessman realizes he should have handled the task himself.  To an audience that has known the earthquake in Haiti and devastating poverty and famine, how do you explain why in the world anyone would chastise a secretary who neglected to overnight a can of caramel popcorn across the country by FedEx as a gift to someone!  Each concept here is an obstacle.  First:  why popcorn?  And next, popcorn with caramel on it?  In a can (why not a box?) and why by an expensive overnight air service?  Would it spoil?  And what makes a can of mostly air, sugar and some corn an exceptional gift? 

Beyond cultural and linguistic challenges, even small ambiguities in a Source text can lead to a translation that does not reap the desired results.  In an on-line marketing study, the following question was asked:  “Imagine that you are going to employ Product X.  What job would you give him?”  The intended goal was to gather responses that compared the product to a living, breathing person holding a job:  a social worker, a dietician, a traffic cop, a carpenter – in short, a noun, a profession.  The purpose, of course, was to elicit the consumer’s perception of the product through an image.  To the surprise of the researchers, the answers did not match expectations.  They were all adjectives:  soothing, calming, enjoyable, fun  Perhaps a French cognate got in the way:  “employ” means “employment” in English, while “employer” in French can mean “to use.”  If the translator had bypassed the verb, better results would have been achieved with “Imagine Product X is a human being.  What sort of job would he do for a living?  This translation is not word-for-word what the original English says, but it would have produced the desired reaction from the respondents.  So the translator has to be intuitive to scope out the purpose of the original text.

Tour guide, sociologist, mind reader:  these are just some of the skills the translator needs to flesh out the deeper meaning of a communication, to read between the lines.