Translation versus word salad

The About Translation blog has a great post about choosing the right translation for a given term.

The sentence in question was:

Heathrow Airport is one of the few places in England you can be sure of seeing a gun.

The question revolved around the word "gun," which can be translated various ways in Italian, depending on context. One of the popular translations was "pistola" (pistol); but as Riccardo points out, "pistola" is incorrect, since most of the officers carry long firearms.

Riccardo even went to the trouble of digging up photos of the officers on the Internet. Bizarrely, a lot of the "pistol" translators apparently defended their errors by saying that "pistola" was in the dictionary as a translation for gun.

There are two takeaway messages:

  1. Just because it's in the dictionary doesn't mean it's the right translation
  2. We're not way back in 2004 anymore — when in doubt, Google it!

I really don't see how anyone could consider "it was in the dictionary" to be a valid argument, but a lot of people must share this view, because a lot of the translations I review are like word salad — like the translator just picked translations out of the dictionary at random.

It's only a guess, but this kind of thinking must originate among people who are totally disconnected from the users of their translations. How else could they think, "I know it's wrong, but at least all the words are in the dictionary?"

This attitude isn't limited to translators, either. When I was a Spanish linguist in the US Air Force, one of our common tasks was transcribing Spanish-language tape recordings. A lot of the weaker linguists, when they didn't understand what the speaker was saying, would just write down any old gibberish. When I called them on it, they'd invariably say something like, "Well, that's what he was saying." Sorry, no. People don't just suddenly start babbling out random strings of syllables. People generally say things that make sense.

And when people are actually paying you good money to translate something, there's a pretty good chance that they want their message to get across. When that automatic egg flipper blows up because of your mistranslation, I doubt the manufacturers are going to be very happy with, "Well, at least it was in the dictionary."

10 comments to Translation versus word salad

  • Anonymous

    Vaguely related to this topic, I am a novice translator and would be interested in seeing your comments on a page I encountered. The site “Honyaku no Izumi” has an introductory guide to translation that advocates the adoption of 定訳 for doing translations in a given technical field. At in the second example, the correction states that since the excerpt is dealing with computers the translation “接続” most be used to translate “connect” in “HTML is the language used by Web servers to create and connect documents that are viewed by Web clients.” I have never seen this usage before, but the author is a native Japanese speaker with decades of translation experience. Could you possibly enlighten me with your comments on this example and perhaps this method in general?

  • I’m not a native speaker of Japanese, but I agree that ドキュメントを接続する (literally “connect” documents as you would connect cables) doesn’t look right.

    I don’t believe in the 定訳 (set translation) approach, but I notice that the author is a patent translator, and they’re often more interested in the use of the document in a legal setting than creating “good” English/Japanese (i.e. whether you can stand in front of a judge and explain why your translation is correct).

    I therefore wouldn’t recommend patent translation as a model of good translation. It’s kind of a world unto itself.

  • Appreciative

    It’s not really topic related, but I just want to thank you for such a wonderful blog.
    I’ve only recently started freelancing and have found your blog to be a tremendous source of information. Your thoughts and comments are always interesting and incisive.
    You are doing a great service for the translation community. Please keep up the excellent work.

  • @Appreciative

    Wow, thank you. Knowing that people are reading really makes writing this blog worthwhile for me.

  • I think transcription is a lot like translation in that it is best left to a native speaker of the language in question. Through my wife’s work on subtitles, I occasionally see transcripts that were obviously done by non-native speakers of English. They’re easy to spot because they are often egregiously off the mark.

    I suspect that, when people who otherwise feel confident in their language skills get in over their heads, they often take unfounded leaps to bridge the gaps between what they understand and what they don’t. They guess at what they don’t know, and then shoehorn their results into something that seems to make sense grammatically (or so they hope), but usually has no relation at all to what was actually said. It can be mind-bogglingly perplexing to even attempt to untangle a mess of this sort. In cases like this, whenever there is time to have the transcript redone by a native speaker (and usually there is none), that’s what I always recommend.

    Also, allow me to echo Appreciative’s comments about your blog: Although I don’t comment as much as I would like to, I always find your entries very worthwhile. Do keep it up! 🙂

  • Very interesting, Ryan, and great stories. I agree 100% — choosing the right term can be tricky. Research, research! We have many highly specialized dictionaries, and we do intense research on actual usage of the terms, even if that means we need to read academic papers (as I did, two weeks ago, for some up-an-coming terminology on… applied physics!). I am pretty perplexed that many translators would just choose a random word — I’d like to think that most of my fellow translators are as thorough as we are. I agree that it is our responsibility to go to any extent that is necessary to make sure we are communicating every last syllable correctly in the target language — it’s what we do!

    A few weeks ago, we were working on a English->Spanish project for our local Water District. A “Water Desalination Plant” was discussed, which usually desalinates ocean water. In this case, the water is from the Colorado River, which means there is very little precedent in translating some of the related terms. The Mexican government had used “Planta desaladora”, while some translations into Spanish by American institutions were using “Planta de desalinización” — and there were a few other options. In this document, every second word was an incredible challenge, but it was also fantastic to see how much information you can dig up. For instance, “Southerly International Border” — not a frequently used term (106 Google hits). It’s certainly in no dictionary on the planet. We went back to the typed-up minutes of a meeting from the 70s where the Spanish equivalent term “Lindero Internacional Sur” was coined. Whew! My point: Thanks to the internet, it’s all findable and researchable, so there’s no excuse not to do it. We oppose word salad. 🙂

  • Bible Translator

    I’m trying to find out: who is “Transubstantiation” @
    Any ideas?

  • @Bible Translator

    Not me. Does that narrow the field at all? 🙂
    Sorry, I don’t know anything about “Transubstantiation” except the blog.

  • Ryan,

    Good post. I also find myself rejecting the knee-jerk response, “well, that’s what it said in the original,” as if their translation was not a choice but was imposed on the translator by the original. It did not say pistola in the original, it said gun and you chose to render it as pistola.

    Keep up the great blog!


  • There’s one more thing to be kept in mind. Be sure to filter search results while googling. For instance, when I translate into English and need to Google some phrase, I also check whether such phrase is used on .com,, .us domains to be sure the phrase is used by native speakers.

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