On the Beach,

Why You Can't Just Translate the Words

Nuance and connotation are not just cocktail party terms for intellectuals. Let me illustrate with an anecdote in which all details are slightly disguised. Let's say that a software company in Magyaria, a small but highly technological Eastern European country, has developed a hard-disk compression tool that is ten times better than anything anywhere. It's called 'Redunda.' This company sells their product in Magyaria with full-page ads that show a wide-angle view of the ocean with visible curve in the horizon. In the foreground is the most popular and well-known beach in Magyaria, a popular resort called "Redunta," and on the hill above the beach, facing away from us, is a little man holding his arms in the air in an expansive, 'Mine, all mine!' gesture.

Across the top a banner reads "Spantzia redunda zich oken!" which means in Romany-Magyar, "Fill every nook and cranny!" That is, this is the expected, accepted, typical translation. Why? Because when the Magyary national epic, The Gahlevegolve'alundsajje, was translated into English by British adventurer-poet Sir Roderick P. D. Quillery-Oldefratch, Sir Rod chose that phrase to translate the god Neppatgino's exhortation to the Magyary people at the climactic moment of the tale. But that's neither here nor there.

As it happens, the literal meaning of "Spantzia redunda zich oken" is "Expand as abundantly as the sea," but it has become an idiomatic way of saying 'Find places for all your stuff.' To underscore the point, the beach is covered with people, umbrellas, etc. Redunta Beach is notorious in Magyaria for being almost impossible to visit because of its popularity. Finally, the little man with his back to us looks ever so slightly like a Magyaria dictator, now dead long enough to be remembered nostalgically, who habitually finished his speeches by raising his arms and exhorting them to prosper and multiply, using that very proverb. Oh my.

The guys at TeknXgahn (our Magyary software firm) want a piece of the American silicon pie. They come to an American localization firm for a translation of the ad. I get the honor of serving them. Hmm. We have two 'easy' choices: we could translate the phrase literally ("Expand abundantly as the ocean!") or to its equivalent English idiom ("Fill every nook and cranny!") and give it back to them. Minimum charge of $250; $63/word allows us some profit, and you could say Sir Rod (or the dictionary) did most of the work. Of course, the literal translation is a bit of a head-scratcher for those of us who speak English in our daily lives, and there is no connection in English between nooks and crannies, which we find in houses, and the ocean, so the accepted translation doesn't appear to have much bearing on the picture for those of us who didn't cut our literary eyeteeth on The Gahlevegolve'alundsajje.

So we decide to earn our $250 by giving them a real localization. It can go two ways. Neither of them easy.

First, if they want the idiomatic text, we can stay with it. But that means we have to suggest reshooting the photo, to replace it with something more appropriate to the U.S. A picture of something with lots of nooks and crannies, like a barn with thousands of little things stored on the walls? A rolltop desk? Who knows? In the process, we lose an important element, the connotation of vastness that the sea and the beach and the crowds provide, almost as an ironic little Magyary pun against the 'knickknack shelf' implications of the idiomatic 'nook and cranny'. We also lose the references to the epic and the dictator.

Second, if they want to keep the photo (in other words, they have a budget, or the vastness pun was important), we can find a phrase in English that does not mean precisely the same thing as the Romany-Magyar phrase, but conveys the message the visual image refers to. Like what? Perhaps "Room for everything!" or "It's all here!", or "Oceans of room!"

Notice that both choices surrender on some things that might have been very important to the Magyary advertisers: The pun on the name of the beach and the subtle local associations of the ad itself. What can be done about them is almost certainly more trouble than it's worth. Redunta Beach is not exactly a household word in the U.S. Nor is Magyary dictator Masli Atlila, however amusing his personal habits. And I'm willing to bet that none of you, dear readers, had even heard of The Gahlevegolve'alundsajje before I mentioned it. Do they want a localized equivalent of all that?

Well, their ad firm (Jung, Skinner, and Milliken Associates) convinces them that the real selling point in the ad is the subliminal connections (beach/silicon, sea as nurturing home), the clever irony of broadcasting 'room' when the scene appears to be full, the pun of Redunda/Redunta, the subtle reference to the beloved national epic, and the cute image of Masli Atlila ending his speech. Well, all right, it turns out that money is no object. TeknXgahn announced last winter that their product had some obscure relevance to the Internet, and they went public (in Magyaria) on April 1; their IPO netted them 3,452 billion goahtchi (nearly 100 million dollars). So we offer to reshoot the photo.

So now what? A picture of DisneyWorld? How do we connect the name? What about the beach? Redondo Beach? Sorry, even though California is almost as important in the history of the universe as New York City and the Green Bay Packers, I doubt if the average American would recognize Redondo Beach or associate it with anything. Coney Island? Maybe. But wait a minute? Are we going to rename the product?

And what about Masli? P. T. Barnum? Donald Trump? Michael Corleone? Maybe this wasn't such a great idea. What about the epic? The Bible? Moby Dick? Louis L'Amour? Star Wars? We have to start from scratch and bring more to bear on the project than a dictionary, and the meter is running. At some point, we will have to tell the client what the options are, and let them decide what to keep.

The subtleties of translation compound the subtleties of language. There's a popular song from the sixties called, I think, "Ramblin' Man" (The refrain is, "Ramblin' man, why don't you settle down? LA ain't your kind of town"). I heard it yesterday for the first time in years and noticed, for the first time, that the refrain parodies an equally fuzzy remembrance of a Protestant hymn that contains the phrase "the man from Galilee," substituting "Tennessee." Is the musical 'pun' deliberate? Does it mean anything? Is there a way to 'translate' it into, say, Russian or French? Chinese? These are questions that 'creative translators' thrive on. They also pertain very significantly to translating advertisements.

Software documentation? User manuals? Here these problems aren't as significant, but similar issues can apply. The Mexican word for plug (chugar) (i.e., "Plug in the computer") happens to have the same potential ambiguity as the English verb 'screw.' Could you guess that it was a non-native translator who rendered a Japanese instruction into English as, "Now screw in the drive bay slats"? Nuance. True localization recognizes the non-lexical content, whether it is connotative language, irrelevant association, or visual messages. The mere translator screws in the drive bay slat and moves on to the next sentence.

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