Jost Zetzsche Tool Kit

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Reverse translation

We translators are supposed to translate into our mother tongue only and not away from it. In this connection, let us be clear as to what is meant by mother tongue. Let me take my own case.

My mother tongue is Tamil and I studied in Tamil medium till the 9th standard. All subjects other then English were taught in Tamil only. In my 10th standard, the situation took a 180 degrees turn. I had opted for the bifurcated course in engineering. Now except for Tamil all the other subjects were taught in English! Fortunately, thanks to my mother and my 8th Standard teacher Mr. Jayarama Iyengar, I had a strong foundation in English grammar. And I am a voracious reader. These factors helped me in coping with the changed scenario. I had however a small problem in spoken English, which I solved within a few months thanks to constant practice. Sorry for the digression but then this explains my statement that I consider English too as my mother tongue for all purposes.

Hence as per the conventional wisdom, I am supposed to translate from German or French or Italian into English and not vice versa. Well, I do not accept jobs translating into Italian but I do accept assignments translating from English into German or French.

During the first six years of my translation activities starting 1975, I translated into English only. But then in the year 1981 I joined IDPL as Design Engineer cum French translator, a unique designation without any precedent, but more about this later. In retrospect I see that it was good that I was not aware of this restriction concerning reverse translation. Right from the day one of my stay in IDPL, my bosses started giving me jobs of translation in the pair French<>English. So in this case there was really no choice about declining reverse translation jobs. It was either doing the job as demanded or being shown the door!

Contract specifications in French will come from Algeria. I will translate them into English. Our engineers will then go through them and give their quotation in English. I will render them into French and the whole thing will be sent to the Algerian principal. Here my engineering knowledge stood me in good stead. Not one French translation was returned by the Algerians alleging incomprehensibility. This was actually the routine when my predecessor was there. She was an MA in French and nothing more. Not at all in touch with technical jargon. She had a very bad time.

Now my two cents about reverse translations in general. At the outset let me say one thing. This restriction is a must for literary translations. Hence I will not dream of translating Harry Potter books into German or French! Nor will I be very enthusiastic about translating into German or French the Websites, which will be viewed by native German or French people. The native touch will just be missing in that case.

But then the translation assignments that I usually come across are, more often than not, concerned with technical literature. These are to be read by specialists, who will be more interested in the technical information and less in the language nuances. Here I take the plunge and till date I have been getting along without mishaps.

Another aspect is the question of pricing. In India, the cost of living is less than in advanced countries. Hence our rates are on the lower side. This acts as attraction especially for the Indian clients, who otherwise will have to pay more and that too in foreign currency to native German or French translators.

There is another side to this question. The Indian client will require me to translate from Indian English into German or French. Indian English is a class in itself. It is affected by the mother tongue of the Indian writing the text in Indian English. In that case an Indian translator is more apt to understand the nuances of the original text.

The combination of the above two points is mainly responsible in our getting such reverse translation assignments. Needless to say in my profiles of, Translatorscafe as well as Go translators I offer only translations into English and not into French or German. Thanks to my exposure to the views expressed by other translators in various translators' fora, I have started drawing the Indian client's attention to the necessity of his getting such reverse translation jobs done by native German or French translators. In addition, I bring his attention to the fact that the native touch will be missing in reverse translations done by me. Once the client still decides to give me such work, I take a lot of pains to render them as native as possible.



Chinmayi said...

superb post sir!

dondu(#4800161) said...

Thank you Chinmayi.

Dondu N.Raghavan

Raf said...

This is all well and good but what would you define as a mother tongue? How do you define a mother tongue?

dondu(#11168674346665545885) said...

For all practical purposes, you should be able to think in the mother tongue and while writing in the mother tongue you should worry only about the ideas to be conveyed and not worry about the sentence's grammar, idioms and what not.

Especially in technical literature translation this more than suffices.

Dondu N. Raghavan