Wednesday 23 September 2009

Gezellig vertalen

Sometimes, the life of a freelance translator is like waiting at a bus stop: you wait days for the next job and then, all of a sudden, three assignments turn up at once. Killing time in between jobs is a necessary part of the trade.
Last week, one whole day passed without a phone call or email, so I started musing on a particularly irksome translation I’d done a fortnight ago full of awkward Dutch words. I did the wordsmith’s equivalent of twiddling my thumbs and decided to make a list of the ten Dutch words I find most difficult to translate into English. I came up with the following (in no particular order): inhoudelijk, uitgangspunt, strak, inzichtelijk, structureel, uitwerken, overzichtelijk, afstemmen, vaststellen, toetsen.
Of course, they all have dictionary definitions, but notoriously, dictionaries fail to elaborate on the context. When I first started translating I used to keep a glossary of such difficult words. This way I thought I’d cracked it, but that was until the next time I came across the word and my glossary failed to live up to expectations. In the end I gave up. All I was doing was building my own dictionary and the circle was complete.
In my time as a translator I’ve translated uitgangspunt as ‘point of departure’, ‘basis’, ‘basic tenet’, ‘(underlying) principle’, ‘starting point’, ‘baseline’, ‘(basic) assumption’, ‘[the] idea behind’, ‘objective’ and probably many, many more. The point is it depends on the context. A scientific text will differ in this respect from an administrative text. The register of the text will likewise determine the choice of words. And sometimes, however narrow the context, the translation quite never fits the bill.
So, should overzichtelijk be written in English manageable, well-organised, easy-to-follow or easy-to-understand?
And whereas the literal meaning of structureel is structural, structureel krapte is probably best translated as a chronic shortage. Recently, an agency asked me to consider dropping my rates and I answered, “Dat wil ik liever per opdracht beslissen, ik ga mijn prijzen niet structureel verlagen”. I suppose you would best translate structureel here (an adverb) as ‘across the board’, or ‘as a blanket measure’.
And is a strakke pak a sharp suit or a close-fitting suit? There’s a big difference. I’d say you have to see the suit first. If not, you might as well use your intuition and pick the word that you think the paying customer would most like to see.
It just goes to show that what’s an everyday word in one language is not easily translatable in another.

Continuing to muse, I thought I would enter my top ten words in Google and see what it threw up. In fact, I ended up with over 10,000 documents in Dutch, the vast majority of which were bestuurlijke texts, that is texts written by public bodies such as local authorities, government departments and NGOs. (See, even bestuurlijk is difficult to translate).
- De inhoudelijke uitgangspunten waren beschreven in de uitgangspuntennota. Voor de inzichtelijkheid zijn de hoofdzaken hiervan in dit rapport opgenomen....
- Wat de conceptueel-inhoudelijke benadering betreft, wordt uitgegaan van volgende drie principes...
- Het bereiken van voldoende afstemming qua leerlingenprofiel en abstractieniveau...
- Actualiseren van de opzet en uitwerking van het gemeentelijke besturingsmodel...
It would seem there is a whole army of mandarins churning out this kind of stuff. And, needless to say, that ‘irksome translation’ I’d done two weeks ago was a bestuurlijk document.

A customer should never assume (ervan uitgaan) that translation is a process of converting a source word into the target language. In this respect, English can present a vast array of possibilities each with its own subtlety of meaning, so the decision to use a particular word is often only made after a long and complex thought process. A good translator will not simply pick the first one that is listed in Van Dale.