Business Musings: Translations 2019

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One of the things that kept me extremely busy this past fall was a continuing education course. When I moved to Las Vegas, which has a university and a college, I promised myself that I would return to school. I had planned to register as soon as I passed my year’s residency, but I couldn’t get my creaky old transcripts from 100,000 years ago when I was first in school in time for the application deadline for the fall semester.

So I looked at continuing education and saw a few basic Spanish courses. 100,000 years ago, I was a Spanish major (until I couldn’t afford the trip overseas to complete the major). I described myself as functionally illiterate in Spanish. I knew all the words in a sentence except the important one. I learned that in a subway car in Manhattan when I saw a sign in Spanish that, loosely translated, meant: When you have _________, go to a hospital immediately. I got every word except the crucial one. Have what? To this day, I don’t know.

The class was marvelous and just what I needed. Some days it was much too easy. I knew every word, could understand every sentence, and answer every question. Other days, I felt like I’d never heard the language at all.

The professor was a naturalized U.S. citizen who grew up in Colombia. But his family was from Venezuela, and the textbook we used, chosen by his predecessor, was all in Castilian Spanish. (Spain.) To make matters worse, the book was an updated version of the same text that one of my other classmates had used in her first Spanish class…in 1977.

So, each class we had that amusing moment where our professor would scrunch up his face at a word, and then give us a different word for the same thing. Or a more modern version of the word. My notebook was filled with five or six options for the same item, often with the country where the word is spoken written in parenthesis.

And sometimes, he would tell us how that simple word, so clear in one country, would be troublesome in another. What got us started late one class was the word for jacket, which, according to the book, was “chaqueta.” But, in Mexico, “chaqueta” means masturbation. The prof told the story of a English-speaking friend with minimal Spanish visiting Mexico. He was about to go out to dinner with friends, but realized he forgot his jacket.

He said, in what he thought was very clear Spanish, that he forgot his jacket in his hotel room and would be right back. His friends waited. It only took him a minute or two to retrieve the jacket, and his friends said, “That was remarkably fast.” It took a while for him to figure out that he had told his Mexican friends he had forgotten to masturbate in his hotel room and would join them after he did so. Surprisingly, at least to me, they waited for him to return.

All of this reminded the prof of a video which he shared with us, and which you should watch before going much farther with this post.

I was taking this class during the Business Master Class. I had to leave the Master Class early on Monday so that I could go to my Spanish class, and ironically, that was the week of the video.

I say ironically because at the Master Class, I had a discussion with a friend about the future of translation. She pointed to all the changes in audio, changes which involve AI and all kinds of exciting innovations, which I will deal with in my next post.

She expected those changes to happen in translation as well. In fact, she told me (as she has in the past) that she believes it can be done now. Using Google Translate, or a similar program, she has translated some short stories, and put them up for sale.

And I shudder every time I think of that. Because translation is an art, not a science.

In this Spanish class, unlike the Spanish classes of my youth, the students either had their phones out or their computers open to a translate program. If they didn’t know the word, they would look it up—and get the word right enough to make their meaning clear, but often wrong in a way that was seriously giggle-worthy. (Watch that video again.)

Hence the discussions that I mentioned.

In the argument that I had with this writer off and on for years, I would mention the problems caused by literal translation, and she would pooh-pooh me. Saying it was really nothing.

But it is something, and finally I have more than my word and a fun video to back me up.

In the Fall 2019 edition of Mystery Scene, Craig Sisterson interviewed several translators about their work.  (The article is not online. You’ll need to order the issue to read it. I’d recommend doing so.)

The article deals with the particular difficulties of translating crime fiction. Choosing the wrong word can spoil the story entirely. (Quotes taken from pages 29-31 in the magazine.)

The classic example, cited by two of the translators, was of a German translation of an Agatha Christie novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The young translator took the term “spills vase” and translated it, in German, to mean “vase.”

However, in English, a “‘spills vase was an old-fashioned ornament that contained ripped up paper for lighting candles from the fire, and was vital to Peroit’s deduction and unmasking of the killer” leaving German readers confused as to the story, simply because of the word choice. [MS Fall 2019 P. 30]

According to Sian Reynolds, whose translations from the French have won her international acclaim, such challenges aren’t unusual. Take, for example, prolific Belgian mystery writer Georges Simenon.

“Simenon writes in a deceptively simple style, with a very restricted vocabulary,” she told Mystery Scene. “Underneath something is going on, but you need to keep the language simple without repeating too much. English often has a wide range of words for the same French word, e.g. the room in most houses or flats is known as le salon. In English it could be living room, sitting room, drawing room, lounge, parlour—it depends on context, and then you are making a social statement. Which do you choose?”

That choice is why everyone who understands how translations truly work state that a translator is a collaborator with the author. Sure, a machine translation might come up with a understandable translation of the book, but the translation would be literal.

And in storytelling, literal is not what you want. You want the readers to be engaged with the story itself and the characters, not struggle with word choice. (Did she mean chaqueta as in jacket? Or something else entirely?)

David Warriner, who translates French-Canadian and French authors into English, told Mystery Scene, “I’m not just translating their story. I’m translating their voice.”

One of those authors, Johana Gustawsson, whose novel, Blood Song, Warriner translated into English, expressed pleasure at his translation because he caught her voice.

She told Mystery Scene that Warriner “really managed to beautifully translate the jokes, with all my southern sense of humor….I think that, indeed, it became our book, and not only mine anymore.”

I agree. I read books in translation and usually quit when the translation is rote or uses words that aren’t common in English to get that literal translation.

I also feel like the translators who’ve worked on my novels are a large part of the success of those translated novels. I remember spending days on a back-and-forth with my French translator, Luc Baranger, about the title of my second Smokey Dalton novel. In English, the title is “Smoke-Filled Rooms,” which refers to political dirty dealing in back rooms.

We shared a number of emails in which he tried out various French phrases, all of them idioms, that might have a similar sense as smoke-filled rooms, something that would appeal to the French reader. He finally chose À couper au couteau, which literally means “to cut with a knife.” French speakers will have to tell me if the title worked, but I do know that no one complained.

And the amount of work that went into choosing that phrase alone was tremendous. I’ve had other translators do similar work on other idioms, because idioms, when they are literally translated, are ridiculous.

(My French editor, who spoke excellent English, screwed up an idiom in introducing his assistant to me. “She is my left hand,” he said to me. I knew what he meant. But figuring out what he meant as opposed to using the idiom correctly is the difference between enjoying a story and deciphering one.)

Audio books are hitting a level where we can bifurcate the audio experience. A lot of people are listening to flat machine voices read books. They’re also listening to podcasts at 2.5 speed (guilty), just to get the information from them.

My writer friend believes translations will go the way of audio in that machine translations will be the default for some readers. I simply can’t imagine it. While you can get a sense of a book from a poor audio recording of that book, you can’t get a good sense of a book from a poor translation.

Add in the fact that every language grows and changes, and each generation has its own slang, and translation becomes quite tricky indeed.

At this point, December of 2019, I still prefer to trust my work to a good translator than to a machine translation program.

Will I feel the same in December of 2029? I don’t know. I’m not going to underestimate the possibilities of artificial intelligence.

But I do know that right now, AI is not at the level where I trust any program to do even a literal translation of one of my novels.  And I don’t want literal translations.

I want good translations.

How do I get them? Well, right now, I’m not pursuing translation, although a number of translators have pursued me. Some of them are connected to publishing companies, and some of them aren’t. I make the decision to work with the translator based on the same factor I would use in any licensing deal. What do they bring to the table?

I know some of you want to pursue your own translations, and let me urge you to start with short fiction in translation. If readers in another country want to read more of your work, they will agitate for it, and eventually, that will come to the attention of someone who can license the work in that language and pay you for the translation rights.

You’ll also find good translators this way. If readers like your work that regularly appears in Japanese from the same translator, then you probably want that translator to work on your novels as well.

The other reason I urge you to start with short fiction is the ease of submitting to the many, many available markets. Douglas Smith keeps an up-to-date foreign markets list here. Be sure to read his post on submitting to foreign markets before you even try to do so.

Technology is helping the world get smaller, making it easier for us to share our work in a variety of formats. We can submit work for translation, easily find out about other markets (see Doug Smith, above) and maybe even find a good translator or two.

Right now, I license my work in translation. I don’t have time to do the work to find a translator, a copy editor in that language, and research proper covers for the language and oh so much more. DIY translation—where you hire it all out, at quite a cost (for someone good)—is time consuming, without a lot of initial return. The return will come, just much more slowly than it does with other things you can do with your precious time.

Will this be different ten years from now? I hope so. But the situation on translation hasn’t changed much since 2010, so all I have at the moment is hope.

And, for the record, I’m not learning Spanish so that I can eventually translate my own work into that language. I’m coming to the language too late to ever feel comfortable using it as more than a rudimentary communications tool (and to go back and read in Spanish again).

Besides, remember the video: Qué difícil es hablar el español. And German. And French. And Japanese. And…and…and…


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“Business Musings: Translation 2019,” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / dizanna.



18 thoughts on “Business Musings: Translations 2019

  1. One of my favorite novels is Black Water Lilies by Michel Bussi, translated from the French by Shaun Whiteside. I enjoyed the story, and was totally caught unawares by the ending. I was so surprised that I went back to the beginning to re-read the first 30% of the book and then skim the rest to figure out how I had missed the twist so badly. I realized how intricately constructed the story was. I have not read the original French (which I would love to do if I were able) so I don’t know how the twist comes across in French. But, I really appreciate Shaun Whiteside’s work in the translation in being able to surprise me so completely.

    Now, I may have been obtuse / oblivious. I have seen twists coming in other novels. Sometimes that’s because the twist is too obvious or because I have read so many of the author’s other works. I read another of Michel Bussi’s novels, After the Crash, translated by Sam Taylor. I went in anticipating a twist, but I didn’t figure it out before the end.

    I have recommended Black Water Lilies to a French friend. I would love to discuss his experience of reading it in French to compare to my experience.

    As good as artificial intelligence is getting, I don’t think it could come close to doing an effective translation of novels, at least not now.

  2. I sometimes work as a translator and see more and more people rely on machine translations but as long as the machine can’t decide what the correct translation for “mold/mould” is based on the context, I’m not convinced.
    On the other hand, I checked out DeepL and for basic texts (sales texts, marketing stuff which is very formulaic and so on) it’s surprisingly good. I can see why people use it for websites and handbooks. I tried out some simple fiction excerpts and that translation would require some editing by an actual human being. The unedited result was not something I consider worth publishing. Not even for erotica.

    Whole Novels? Forget it. So much depends on context and on knowing the culture. I once had to tell a writer that the name Brett was maybe not the best choice if she wanted to translate the novel into German. (Brett is the German word for a plank of wood).
    A lot of Germans are poking fun at Anna Todd’s After-novels because the German publisher kept the After…-title and printed the After really prominently. The problem? “After” is the German word for anus, so … ehm … yeah.

    Word games or sayings are really difficult to translate. Certain names as well. There are some really interesting articles about Harry Potter and why some translators decided to translate some of the names of the characters and places into their language or why not. That’s something no machine will be able to master. That requires skill and creativity as you need to be well-versed with target-language and be able to play around with it and adapt things to fit the style of the book.

    And what are you going to do if a character decides to quote Shakespeare? Translate that yourself? Or research the existing translations and the one people are most familiar with? In school we once compared several Shakespeare translations with the original and the changes and interpretations the various translators made over the centuries were really interesting.

  3. I’m late to the post, but I can’t help but commenting. If your writer friend gets to sell more than one of her translated books to the same person, she has a real fan of her work, because although it’s true that automatic translation has become better and for some usual expressions in the most used languages it can even translate a few idioms (although not usually), it isn’t still there the same as text to speech, and even text to speech usually creeps me, but maybe my tolerance is lower than other people more used to it.
    I’m working on a project at work to translate texts from an application (the texts are stored in a database), for some official forms and documents extended by our company (a small private Spanish university), and we are sending the bulk of new texts to a company with translators that have experience in Higher Education terms, and even then, because not always the same translator works with our texts, or we send a similar text months after a text was sent the first time, when we receive the text back and I have the time, I check the translations back to assure the consistency when they are only small changes, and to check that we aren’t mixing American and British terms/spelling (we should be using British English).
    And this for something with formal language where you don’t have to transmit an atmosphere or a special voice. I have tested some tools more refined than Google translate, but we can’t confide completely in them, they don’t get specialized terms or use formal language consistently, so no, I can’t create a process to automatically translate the texts we need, I have a process to automatically extract the texts that need translated, and another process to automatically insert in the database the translations, but the part in between is manual and needs to be supervised, and takes a lot of work.

    And just for giggles in your Spanish class, this is a popular Spanish (castilian) text about idioms with a very unpolite but popular word:
    It is attributed to a Spanish writer, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, but I think that when I read his article the first time, I have already read something similar that was circulating by mail, it was at the beginning of internet here in Spain, so the correct attribution about these things gets blurred.

  4. If you’re fluent in several languages (and by fluent I mean understanding all the nuances), Google translate can be the best tool ever. My brain will usually offer up the word I’m looking for but not in the language I want it in. Once I have it in one language, there is no hope of getting it in any of the others. Google will find it for me – and I’m capable of judging if it’s the right one.

    I regularly get frustrated with writers who don’t bother to double check the translation Google offers when they use foreign words or phrases in their English text. Like this one story where a French character was looking for the word for seat belt in English. She didn’t find it so she used the French word. Except the author got it wrong and used the French word for timing belt. It’s a belt, it’s in a car – but if you have it wrapped around your torso after an accident you’re most decidedly dead (result: the story was SO weird in my head, I never bought another story by the author). And do not get me started on the one who wrote “je suis en amour avec vous.” Even Google knows better.

    Shoving an entire story through an automatic translation should be illegal. Reading that stuff must be horrible!

    1. As someone who occasionally works as a translator I wouldn’t use google translate but a decent online dictionary. They tend to be a lot better and offer various options of the word including annotations if a word is for example British or American English (one of the lovely traps non-native English speakers sometimes stumble into).

  5. I’ve found a good way to brush up on a language long unused is to find a simple book that you have read before in your native language, and getting a translation in the desired language.
    Agatha Christie is good for this. Simple stories, short and engaging.

  6. Great points Kris.

    Another thing I would add is: things might have different meanings in different cultures.

    I was listening to a Bollywood romantic song that went:

    “My life was a sunny day, until you came as a dark cloud to cover it up”

    In the west if you said this to a woman , you would most likely be slapped ?

    But in India, sunny days are considered bad (if you have ever felt the Indian sun, which even in winters can make your head spin, you will understand ). In India, rainy and cloudy days are considered romantic.

    Using google translate you miss such nuances.

    Even for simple words, google translate recommends very pedestrian words, such that a local would think “I would never use that word”.

    So yeah, translators jobs are safe for now. ?

  7. I’m translating a series, and the author reviews every chapter (or two) as I finish and sends back comments on the document. It’s like banter between friends, even though it was the publisher who hired me, and he’s excited to read his work in English, and when there’s an idiom or context I missed, he usually just says “actually it meant something like this” and leaves it up to me to come up with the final translation. Meanwhile, I’m just trying to make sure his voice comes through, without being afraid of the fact that since every single word is a decision, my voice is going to come through a little, too. He encourages that.

    But it’s very much a collaboration, and the trepidation I felt when I first started melted away very quickly. So I can honestly say I’ve been taking mental notes for how to act when my own work is eventually translated, especially into languages I speak. 🙂

  8. I teach English as a Second Language (ESL). A few thoughts:

    It’s too easy to look things up on smart phones. Back in my day (grump, grump) we had to use big heavy paper dictionaries. We memorized words because dictionaries were awkward to use and we wanted to avoid them as much as possible. Some of my students can’t repeat vocabulary after a week of using it because they look it up every time.

    In longer pieces of writing from my more advanced students–letters or journals–I can instantly spot set phrases translated from their mother tongues or sentences they composed in their mother tongue and then translated to English. A language is so much more than words and grammar. A language has a logic, a history, a cultural context. It might take pages to fully capture the meaning of a short phrase. Or a paragraph might be reducible to a sentence. I think it will be more than a couple of years before the complexities of translation can be automated.

    I encourage my students to read native material for practice and suggest a printed book/audio book set is an excellent choice. Not infrequently students come back to me with an audio book they have found and complain it is bad. I listen as I read along and find that, yes, the narrator has dropped words, changed words, reversed words, and made some very strange choices in chunking. Sometimes stress patterns change words. I just tell my student the audio book is not a good choice for their purpose. Machine voices don’t drop or reverse words, but they are the worst offenders for strange chunking and stress.

    An exercise for the reader–How many different meanings can you get from the following sentence just by changing the stress:
    “I didn’t say we should kill him.”

  9. This is a subject that has interested me since I took Russian in high school. Now, as a substitute teacher, I get the willies when I’m in for a language teacher and the kids are relying on Google Translate. I don’t know if that reflects the teachers’ usual practice. However it is, by not using a paper dictionary they’re missing all the shades of meaning a word can carry and don’t learn to choose the one that fits the best.

    In the video Kris posted, I could see how those different meanings for the same word could develop in various places. It’s a matter of different groups taking off on different aspects of the original word (if I may term it as such) and developing new meanings from there.

    A fascinating subject all around. And yes, it’s too bad that German translator overlooked the part about the spills. A knowledge of history and material culture is as crucial for good translation as is the knowledge of words.

  10. Oh my! Unfortunately I don’t have the time to list all the translation mistakes I have run into in my 40+ years in Germany. No one who has ever tried to write something coherent in a foreign language or tried to translate something into a text so that it doesn’t read like a translation could ever believe that machine translation will work for fiction or poetry. A good translator is a detective, always searching for the best way to use the tools of the next language to re-create the world of the original work. Context matters and drives good translators crazy. One translator I helped had the following problem when translating an insert for a music CD that included a quote from a jazz clarinet player. The quote was “You gotta go for the hole, just like Walter Payton, go for the hole.” My translator then asked (logically enough), “Assuming Walter Payton is a jazz clarinet player, what can he possibly mean with the ‘hole’, surely not the holes in the clarinet?” She, like most of the potential customers/readers who would read her translated text in German when they bought the CD, had never heard of Walter Payton and was completely unfamiliar with the rules of American football. All I could do was explain those two things to her and wish her luck trying to express that in German. I shudder to think what a machine translation would have come up with.

  11. For the benefit of the readers of the blog I thought I’d add a few comments here. The thing to note with machine translations like GoogleTranslate is that they are based on a corpus of existing translated works – i.e. some human has already done most of the work. If the sentence being translated is close to that in another work that is in the corpus of translated works then it may come up with a passable translation. If the sentence is fairly unique in its structure or word combinations, or just doesn’t match up with anything in the corpus, then the machine translation will be terrible to non-existent. You can see this if you put in a famous work like a Bible quote from German – generally it will give you the equivalent from the King James or New International Versions – or something from a Latin work by say Horace or Virgil. This is because a real live translator spent hours working on that translation at some point in the distant past (and this sometimes shows in the dated style and word choice of the translations that are produced). But if you pick an obscure author that has not been translated into English before (or a language which does not have a large corpus of English translations to work from), then you will often get rubbish back – because the machine translation is essentially just a dumb comparison engine that knows nothing of grammar or semantics or misspellings and just treats the text as random combinations of characters to compare against the random combinations in its corpus.

  12. Oh my goodness, your poor friend! Just one hour inside a single language class would cure her of her belief in the validity of Google translate. If a person is supposed to use a different “you” in formal relationships than they do in informal relationships, how do you translate a character who addresses her parents with the formal “you”? Saying usted instead of tu? Since we don’t say “thee / thou” in this century, a literal translation won’t work in English. You have to finesse it by translating the character as calling her parents Mr. and Mrs., or “the progenitors” or whatever it is she means by “usted.”

    Or, suppose the femme fatale is saying “I’m married,” only instead of saying “soy casada” which may indicate she expects to stay married, she says, “estoy casada,” which suggests her marriage is temporary. Relevant if her husband’s million dollar insurance policy has kicked in … I suppose the spirit of the meaning would be, “I’m married. For the moment.” I’m sure English has its issues going in the opposite direction. I feel for your friend’s feet; she’s shooting them over and over.

    My favorite mistranslation is from an interview a Brazilian TV reporter did with Freddie Mercury. She kept calling him the “leader of Queen,” and he kept trying to explain to her that he isn’t Queen’s leader, he’s not a general, and his bandmates don’t take orders from him. I suspect she meant “lead singer,” and hadn’t caught the nuance.

    I am doubtful machines will ever be able to work out such subtleties. A sci-fi writer could have fun with how “universal translators” might really work.

    1. I think in the case of a character addressing his parents with the traditional “usted” I’d see if it’d work if he could always refer to them as “Father” and “Mother’ (vs. Dad and Mom) and address them as “Sir” and “Ma’am.” That would give the sense of formality without being too, too distant and point up the fact that the culture in the novel is indeed different..

      1. That’s where regionalisms add to the challenge. The sir/ma’am wouldn’t get the across the coldness to a Southern reader or translator. My mother’s folks are from the South, and Dad is from the Bahamas, and both sets of people say sir & ma’am, and have very warm relationships with their families.

        Bahamians may call their mother “mummy / mommy / mama” even while using “ma’am,” and their father is usually papa or daddy even as he’s “sir.” You can imagine how challenging it was to grow up in the North, where people have a downright kryptonian allergy to “sir and ma’am.” 🙂 Answering my parents that way stood out so much that a long-lost friend was able to prove to my mother that she knew me just because she remembered me doing that.

        Whereas, I don’t know of any Anglophones who wouldn’t think it cold if a person called her parents Mr. and Mrs. Last Name. Calling them by their first names would likely convey “New Age hippy” more than unnatural formality. I suspect your “Mother / Father” solution would work, but I can’t be sure. But, it’s the kind of problem that convinces me that human translators will always have an edge over machines. Thank goodness for small favors, no?

  13. I agree 100%.
    My primary language is Portuguese, and even reading books translated to Portuguese by human translators and published by big companies, I often identify literal translation of less known English idioms.
    And there’s a fun tweet I read a while ago. An American music group tweeted a short phrase in Portuguese, obviously translated with a machine. The problem is that we do not use the same word for “fan” as in “admirer or follower” and “fan” as in “ventilator”.
    In Portuguese, the tweet was saying something like: “Kisses to all our ventilators in Brazil.”

  14. You wrote “I read books in translation and usually quit when the translation is rote…”

    If it is a translation from Spanish or another language I don’t speak, I quit, too. And I am left wondering if the wooden style, for example, stems from the author or if it is the author’s bad luck to have gotten a mediocre translation.

    If I notice something similar in a translation from English, I often go online to find the original passage; then, while reading on, I automatically hunt for more translation mistakes or mishaps, and think about a more fitting translation. That can be fun, too, but is certainly not why I picked up the novel. 😉

    “…translation is an art, not a science. (…) you can’t get a good sense of a book from a poor translation.”

    So true. That’s why I took care, and time, to find just the right professional translator into American English for my long selling middle-grade novel, now published as The Greenest Wind. Working with translator Rebecca Heier was a joy, and I couldn’t be happier with the result.

    By the way, always #NametheTranslator :-))

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