When the obvious translation isn’t right

March 15, 2024 by Alison Tunley

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The topic of false friends comes up regularly in translation, and this week’s collection of translation glitches are similar but perhaps better described as “friends that might lead you astray”. All the examples we discuss here have what seems to be an obvious solution in the target language, but this initial translation turns out to be misleading, or at least not the choice a native speaker would have made. Apologies to non-German readers, the examples come from working on one specific language, but the thought process behind fixing these potential errors is common to all translation work.

Let’s begin with a physiotherapy text describing treatment protocols for sports injuries and other conditions. The term Schmerzprojektion translates literally as “pain projection” or perhaps “projected pain”, both of which make some sense in English. However, anyone familiar with clinical terminology will know that the standard English term for the phenomenon of pain experienced in one part of the body where the cause is located elsewhere is “referred pain”. As in many instances, a quick online search confirms this hunch, revealing 70 times the number of hits for “referred pain” compared with either of the other options.

A bit of technical expertise, or the ability to do some research is indispensable. Our second example involves a mistranslation that could result in a misunderstanding. The term Spülmaschinenkorb consists of the words “dishwasher” + “basket”. This time a Google image search is the most helpful way to establish that what is intended is what English would describe as a “dishwasher rack”, i.e. the main section where plates, bowls etc. are loaded rather than the (cutlery) basket, which German would usually describe as the Besteckkorb.

Sometimes an item of vocabulary can be made up of easily intelligible component parts but identifying the correct equivalent in the target language requires some additional thought. For example, German interior designers might refer to a Wohnküche, a “living kitchen”, or combined kitchen and living area. Lots of dictionary suggestions include slightly convoluted phrases involving living/kitchen area or eat-in kitchen, which misses the point as it would not be exceptional in the UK for a kitchen to have a dining table in it. The best solution I have found is open-plan kitchen, which seems superficially to be slightly different (referring primarily to the fact that the kitchen opens up onto the rest of the house) but is the closest we have to capturing the sense of a shared dining/cooking/living space.

Finally, I recently came across the term Haifischkragen translated literally as a “shark collar”. I had never heard that term, so the first thing I ask in a situation like this is “does anyone actually say this in English?”. You’ll certainly find some search engine hits, but a suspicious number are German or European sites that have been translated with varying degrees of success. More helpfully, you will also find German sites describing the precise style of the Haifisch collar, in which the points of the collar are wide apart and pointing outwards rather than straight down. A bit of research into collar design reveals this is in fact called a “cutaway collar” in English. Suddenly the hit results are up to well over a million from a few tens of thousands for the shark choice, and an image search confirms we have identified the correct style. Another great example of how some decent research can pay dividends for the quality of your translation.

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