A huge percentage of translation work involves English, one way or another. And there lies a challenge. English is a complex and rich language, with many irregularities with many words with similar, but subtly different, meanings and also words that look the same, sound different and mean completely different things!
So when is a bow not a bow? When it’s a bow, a curtsey or even a tree.
Let me explain:
- Bow (pronounced b-oh) is the result of tying a ribbon, or your shoelaces.
- Bow (also pronounced b-oh) is a weapon that fires arrows.
- Bow (pronounced b-ow) is something you do to show deference. You bow to the Queen, for instance. A lady might curtsey.
- Bough (also pronounced b-ow) is a branch of a tree.
Some words are both verbs and nouns:
Use (pronounced youz) is the present tense of a verb indicating the act of applying something.
Use (pronounced yoos) is the application that an item has.
Converting a sentence into another language usually means that two entirely different words will be needed and it’s important to know which ones. For instance, in French the verb for to use could be either employer or se servir de. The noun for use on the other hand might be emploi or utilisation. Getting it wrong could completely change the meaning of a sentence.
Then there’s licence (noun) and license (verb), and practice (noun) and practise (verb). Unless, you’re dealing with an American, when they’re both spelt the same. And there’s another anomaly – Americans would say ‘spelled’, not ‘spelt’.
Unless you are completely fluent in English, both written and spoken, it’s very easy to get it wrong. Even native English speakers have problems with some of these!
Then there are the English names – some are simple:
Green (or should it be Greene)
Brown (sometimes Brown or even Braun)
Smith (occasionally spelt Smyth – but Smythe is pronounced differently)
But what about:
Cholmondley (pronounced Chumley)?
Berkeley (pronounced Barclay)?
Mainwaring (pronounced Mannering)?
And ffoulkes (yes that is a double ‘f’ and both lower case) or St John (pronounced Sinjen)?
It’s not just in English where there can be several words meaning almost the same thing. Did you know that in Japanese there are different verbs for wearing shoes, glasses, hats, gloves, coats and scarves – based on which item is being worn. However, the same verb is also used for ‘to put on’ as ‘to wear’.
In French the adjective ‘brown’ is brun. But brown hair is ‘cheveux châtain’ and brown shoes are ‘les chaussures marrons’.
The ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’ conundrum starts when several subjects are being discussed. For example:
When John Downes joined the company he was welcomed by the General Manager. He said he was delighted to be there.
Who was delighted to be there, John Downes or the General Manager?
When translating from one language to another this kind of reference must be clear or confusion can result. The problem is that, in the example above, to change ‘he’ at the beginning of the second sentence for ‘John Downes’ or ‘The General Manager’ can appear clumsy. Translation assignments are constantly throwing up challenges such as this – and a good translator will successfully overcome them!
Every language has its own grammatical constructions, for instance, in German the past participle of the verb goes at the end of the sentence so:
We went for a walk
We were walking gone (Wir sind spazieren gegangen)
In French the adjective comes after the noun … and we’re only scratching the surface here.
What is the point of beating our chests about the finer points of language? Quite simply it’s your reputation on the line. Get it wrong and your reputation can suffer – and it’s hard to get it back.