Have you ever played a game of Chinese Whispers? It’s a chain of verbal communication between a number of people. The first person passes a message on to the next and the message then gets passed along the line. The chance that the message is the same at the end of the chain as the beginning is small. In fact, the differences between the two messages are often quite funny!
The German English translator cannot afford to play Chinese whispers. He or she has to convert one piece of text as accurately as possible from one language into another. To do that means paying close attention to both the writer (the original text) and the audience (the recipient). What is the writer saying and how can this best be translated so that it can be understood by the audience?
The distinct advantage that the English German translation service has over the participant in the game of Chinese whispers is that they have the text right in front of them. There is no confusion whatsoever in the words they are presented with. However, that doesn’t mean they are capable of being mistranslated.
Many languages use the same words that have multiple meanings. English is definitely one of those languages, with many examples that come to mind. The word ‘bright,’ for instance might mean ‘intelligent’ or ‘smart’ or it could mean ‘well illuminated,’ or ‘well lit.’ It doesn’t take too much imagination to understand how a tired translator who doesn’t pay enough attention to the context of the text they are translating to mistranslate the meaning of a word and convert a whole phrase or sentence into nonsense.
Often, the translator makes quite an effort to re-read the text they are giving to translate before they ‘understand’ what the author is trying to say and so be able to convert this into the equivalent for the person who is to read the translated version.
This is critical for the important English German translation of things like legal, medical and technical documents and manuals. It’s often a matter of becoming familiar with the sort of jargon and phrases which are unique to that specific sort of text. It’s just as important with marketing translation or the translation of video speech into subtitles. Slang words and idioms are rich in cultural connotation and these have to be very carefully translated to avoid mistakes, misunderstanding and even potential danger.
It’s possible that a Chinese whisper session could end up with exactly the same message arriving at the end of the chain, but it would take a lot of intense focusing on what each person is saying and being extremely careful about how the message is relayed each time to the next person. Now that is what the good translator has to aim for every time!