Perils of English Language Because too many know it

  • Greater than 9 minutes, my friend!

    I recall a joke I heard quite a long time ago. Administration of a certain Russian college decided to shorten the name of a certain faculty, and the result sounded pretty much like “Fac. ME” in an institution “where even cockroaches spoke English.” Not a particularly hilarious joke it may be, but it is, indeed, thought-provoking. In case of translation business, the very idea that such cockroaches might exist hides three ultimate perils: abundance of clients who speak English, abundance of translators who work with English, and lack of translators who don’t.

    The global spread of English language lead people who can understand it to think that they can speak it. I am guilty of being one of such people, and my previous sentence might actually be a proof of it. Nowadays, even our potential clients are often capable of using it in their business lives. Most international companies require that their employees speak it, and at the same time not all employers care to check the skills of their staff, and some are even incapable of doing so.

    I won’t touch the situation which many translators have encountered at some point in their lives: when the end client also understands English, so he or she begins questioning your translation choices, throwing at you arguments like “I studied English in the 5th grade, why did you translate the word “rose” as (insert language) for “ascended”, are you stupid? It’s a flower with thorns!” No, the problem stretches much further and deeper.

    Have you ever received an English source text written obviously by a non-native? Well, I have. It was a localization project (wait) for a Chinese RPG game (yep). Luckily, it was just an Android/iOS game. Even so, the word count of the project was several hundred thousand, so it was divided between several translators. We had a good team, workflow was well organized, communication went smoothly and payment was on time, nothing to complain about except the source text itself. The game was developed by Chinese, and the Chinese developers wrote all of the game text in English (or should I rather say “translated from Chinese to English on their own,” because Chinese source texts actually existed somewhere). We couldn’t see the text before accepting the job, so when we’ve opened the files, we had to work with what was there.

    If you’ve already anticipated that I’m going to talk about how many mistakes were there, you’re almost right. However, it wasn’t the level of “many mistakes,” it was the level of “like, 3 places were correct.” The grammar there wasn’t just broken. It was the brokenest of broken, and the superlative I’ve just used is more grammatically and lexically correct than any of the lines from there. We basically had to rewrite the whole text based on our assumptions about its contents. Just an example: the verb “to defend” was used with the meaning of “to attack.” I’m not joking or making it up. I’ve asked the end client (we had the Q&A file for that), and he confirmed.

    It only gets worse from here. At a certain point, I encountered a sentence which was completely illegible. If you’ve already had the impression that all text was illegible, remember, that when you’ve hit the rock bottom, you can still smash the rocks further downwards. Other sentences had a whim of meaning inside of them, with words showing some connection at least semantically. This one was a total mish-mash of nouns, adjectives and prepositions with a hint of verbs on the side. I went to the Q&A file and asked the client: “this sentence (quoting it) is a bit hard to understand, could you please rephrase it?”

    Actually, it was a profound euphemism for “the f*** is this s***???”

    I couldn’t just omit it and write something out of my head (like we’ve already been doing for quite a while), because there were references to it further in the text. It was apparently some prophecy or whatever, but this knowledge didn’t help. Anyway, after a while I’ve received a reply from the client. He contacted Chinese developers and had the line in question retranslated from Chinese into English, so he sent it back to me. A total mish-mash of verbs, adjectives and prepositions with a whiff of nouns on the side. None of these words had even a slight semantic resemblance to any of the words in the game. I read the mish-mash, read the attached comment, which said that Chinese source was in pretty much similar condition, and went on translating in a quite Zen state of mind. I had no more questions to ask about this project after that.

    Of course, this is an example of a rather extreme state. The only non-broken language out of three there was Russian, at least I tried to make it so. But there are less extreme examples of this, and if you are working with non-English speaking countries, one day you’ll encounter one of them (if not already). English is so popular and so many people at least think they speak it, that someday you’ll encounter clients who decided to write the source directly in English, rather than in their native, to have it translated into various other languages from it. It wouldn’t really matter to them that they have poor writing skills in any language. From this point, their only concern would be finding a translator to struggle with their creation. Luckily for them, there are plenty.

    Where is the peril in abundance of translators that speak English? The obvious answer is high level of competition and propagation of low rates that follow, but I would not call this “perilous.” Translation is a business with its own risks, so there is no point in sulking about competition and whatsoever. The real peril lies in the shift of an established paradigm on translation market.

    In translation industry, the common practice is that “the translator must be a native speaker of target language.” This works so well for FIGS or other quite common and popular languages; no, in fact, this concept works brilliantly when the target language is not English, like in our example with a language-savvy client. However broken the source may be, with so many people available out there, someone will be able to produce a good target text regardless of the source quality. So, where is the problem in this?

    Let’s now turn the language pair backwards and see how many people are capable of translating into English. Not the clients, the translators. Once again, FIGS and other popular and rather easy-to-learn languages might not pose a problem, because a lot of native speakers of English are quite willing to study them. But what about other, less popular or learner-friendly languages? Let’s take the Slavic family. Russian language is now on agenda, so we can expect many English-speaking people to study it with the intention of translating from it as part of their career, despite its obvious complexity. But what about Polish? Czech? Slovenian? Do many people even know that Slovenian and Slovakian are different languages? Have you ever heard about Macedonian? No, it’s not Greek, and not even its closest relative. Now think, is it feasible to search for a Macedonian to English translator whose native language would be English? For most part, it’s easier to assign the job to a Macedonian native, because this person is available, speaks both languages and is, well, cheaper.

    Is it really perilous to give a translation job to someone who is not a native speaker of the target language? No and yes. Translators essentially speak at least two languages. With proper approach, proper experience and proper analytic skills you can reach a near-native level of proficiency in your source language. No, it doesn’t take 20 years. 5 years can do quite well for most languages, given that all “propers” from above are present. Skilled and professional English to Macedonian translator can also work backwards as well, producing the text of excellent quality.

    The shift of paradigm has already happened, and now we see more and more translators who work into English, despite being native speakers of something completely different. Are they good or bad translators? You never know. I’ve seen good texts written by non-natives, and I have seen good, or, actually, bad examples of Runglish (when pieces of Russian grammar sneak into English, like gender of nouns) and Japanese English (when a sentence would’ve made sense if English followed the rules of Japanese grammar), so I can barely take a solid stance on this. The only common thing I’ve found is that good texts were produced for good rates, and bad ones were made for peanuts. What a remarkable coincidence.

    The abundance of translators who work from and into English conceals a third peril, the most dangerous of all and yet the hardest to comprehend. Remember our savvy client who decided to write the source in English to have it translated into any other language afterwards? Why bother? Why not write it in his or her own native language, be it Chinese, Russian or any other, and then have it translated into all other languages around the world directly? In fact, why do many clients bring up English as an intermediary language? If you need something to be translated from language A to language B, why do you insert English in the middle? Well, the answer to this has already been mentioned somewhere above this line: too many people know English. This phrase, turned backwards, would sound like “too few people know a language other than English.” Of course, one may argue that Chinese or Spanish are spoken by billions, but how many of them know both, but not English?

    If you fail to see the problem there, let me explain. Imagine you are translating a Japanese game. Japanese language is an extremely polite one, so when you encounter a line said by a mildly annoyed character, you’d probably make this character more annoyed in English, and that’ll be perfectly fine. If you keep the level of annoyance the same, players might not even notice that the character was annoyed in the first place. Now imagine that your translation is later used to act as a source text for further localization, into FIGS, Russian, and other languages. Can you vouch that this level of annoyance won’t be amplified further down the line?

    I’ve seen this in one game. A mildly annoyed Japanese character was yelling at others in Russian. I blame the intermediary for that—the English language. I know very well that it was present, because I’ve taken part in localization of another game in the same series, and I know that workflow was organized in the same way for both: first, translation from Japanese to English, then, from English to everything else. During all this, the original message obviously got lost somewhere among all the transformations from one language to another to the next one.

    You all know very well that transformations are inevitable. That something will definitely be lost in translation. However frustrating this may be, you cannot get away from it. Adding another language into the equation amplifies, multiplies the number of losses and mistakes. What has been lost during translation from language A to English will not magically reappear during translation from English to language B. The second translation process would correspond to even more losses, but the thing is, if you translated directly from A to B, this might not have happened at all. Whatever was lost during translation from A to English might have been kept intact in direct translation to B. Something else would have been lost, for sure. But not twice the amount.

    Why can’t we just go and translate without involving English? Because it’s not always possible. Let’s go back to an example with an English to Macedonian translator. Now tell me, can you easily find a Japanese to Macedonian translator? There may be some for sure, but how many? How good are they? Do they have the skill needed to localize a game? Are there enough people for an AAA project with millions of words and tight deadline?

    The awful truth is that finding a translator working in a language pair where no English is involved is not easy. In most cases, it’s easier to find two translators who would translate each other’s words into their respective languages. Ridiculous, right? Yet that is what is actively happening on the market. For some particular reason, it is also seemingly cheaper. You know what I’m implying, don’t you?

    So many people know English nowadays that it gets put in every pie. Clients push their knowledge of it on translators, translators offer services in their non-native language just because everyone needs English, and behind all this translation from not-English to not-English fails to catch anyone’s eye. We see this every day and we consider this normal, but when your mildly annoyed characters start yelling at one another about something that wasn’t even in the source text, you know that you have failed in localization. Are you sure you will involve English in whatever you’re doing next time?

    Of course, you will. In the world “where even cockroaches speak English” it’s much easier to catch one than search for a person who doesn’t. So cockroach clients hire cockroach translators and get satisfied with their cockroach translation, while something really important gets lost between their antennae.

    It’s time to stop.

    Aleksandra Muraviova

    About Aleksandra Muraviova

    Japanese-Russian-English translator and interpreter, passionate about games and languages

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