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 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  Translation Techniques  »  Translating idioms and buzzwords

Translating idioms and buzzwords

By Ben Gaia | Published  06/13/2006 | Translation Techniques | Recommendation:
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Ben Gaia
Nueva Zelanda
francés a inglés translator

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Translating idioms and buzzwords, by Ben Gaia MA

The recent debacle involving a poor translation of “don’t drive high” on a poster campaign in Ottawa demonstrates the often poor working knowledge translators may have of slang and idiom.

As far as political buzzwords, up to the minute business terms, etc go, there are several ways of upskilling in this language area. Perhaps the best is to subscribe to, or read in the library, several different “current affairs” magazines in the target language, eg “Le Point” in French, or even popular glossies such as “Paris Match”. Reading through the articles you will find very “with it” terms are used perhaps to establish the street credibility of these publications as they aim at a young, well-heeled fashionable working readership. You can build your own glossary from such articles. You can also do an exercise: try and translate a current affairs article into your native tongue, keeping the journalistic, trendy style it demonstrates, so your finished product has the same feel or register as the original. This will also make you more aware of the extent to which buzzwords and neologisms are used in your own language. Regular use of new terms or even misuse of existing words quickly promotes them to people’s everyday vocabulary. An example in English is the constant use of “endemic” by journalists to mean “widespread”; this term has been misused so often that a new meaning for “endemic” has emerged meaning “widespread” rather than the dictionary definition of “unique to a region”. Such coinage is not wrong; current usage can never be wrong even if it appears so to the linguistic purist. Language is a growing and changing tool and many modern words do not now carry their original meaning.

Online of course one may try the same thing with personal links to the current issues of “Le Monde”, “Elle”,, or similar daily news pages, focussing perhaps on the business, fashion, or political stories, and soaking up all the latest terminology which frequently reflects the buzzwords and language used by working and business speakers. Café Babel is good because it offers multi language versions for comparison. For example in a recent article on the blogger “nosemonkey” I learn that the French for “screen-addicted geek” is “un débile accro à son écran.”

A different problem arises when faced with translating true slang words or registers of speech such as youth slang or street talk. There is really no substitute in this instance for putting on your street wear and hanging out at the mall, getting swept off to student parties, or generally living as a vagabond for a few weeks around the streets of small Pacific port towns or Northern Parisian industrial ghettoes. Only by becoming familiar with “street talk” at its basic level, ie the street itself, will we become fluent in the nuances of modern slang. Naturally it is difficult to take notes in a darkened night club but every effort should be made to jot down new slang in a notebook before falling asleep that night. This is of course just as true for your native tongue and I recommend reading youth magazines, getting involved with the young eg teaching, and generally hanging out at colleges, joining political protest movements, or even watching “youth” TV programmes and fad movies, for gleaning a whole new vocabulary of recent slang. This can really never be learnt any other way. Beware of accepting the meanings of subtitles on movies as in my experience they are often translated with very outdated or “soft” versions from, say, harsh French argot, particularly when subtitled for US audiences.

Slang goes out of date very quickly too, as well as being specific to regions. For example my Swiss teacher always called bad drivers “conard!” but a Parisian might find this quaint and bucolic sounding. New Caledonians, influenced greatly by nearby Australia, and American movies, drop as many English words into their slang as possible: “Ouais, on a bu un coke au top spot après le football, c’etait cool!” In similar vein Parisian has adapted much of the guttural accent and many slang words of Arabic and African, such as “toubib” for doctor. And nobody can understand the first thing about the French back-slang “verlan” unless they have spent some time around Parisian youth.

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  • Professionally educated interpreter vs. slang (Posted by Thayenga on 10/8/2010)
    A good example took place at the Berlinale 2003 in Berlin, Germany. During a press conference a Turkish journalist questioned George Cloony about his film "Solaris" - an originally Russian story/film - which Mr. Cloony introduced at the film festival. The questions and answers were interpreted life by a professional interpreter - who did an excellent job - until Mr Cloony, who became very annoyed with the Turkish journalist's uncomfortable questions, stated: What a jerk. The interpreter hesitated briefly, then said: "Was für ein Witz" (What a joke). Mr. Cloony repeated his statement and the interpreter, after yet another pause, repeated his "Was für ein Witz", then "corrected" it to "Das soll wohl ein Witz sein?" (You're kidding?) It was more than apparent that the interpreter had an excellent command of both (proper) English and German but none of American slang.

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