Please not the water to inside play

Door Rik Schraag

Guest blog by Terence Kennedy

Google Translate is brilliant on a good day. But a bad one can produce the type of linguistic spaghetti aired so amusingly in a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory: “It might have had had not been was done….”

I certainly remember such linguistic minefields from my own early days learning Dutch, when an office colleague, mortified that he had forgotten to include me in the coffee round, tied himself in knots with “Had je ook koffie hadden willen hebben gehad?”

The classic of the genre is undoubtedly English as She Is Spoke, the 19th-century Portuguese-English phrasebook written by Pedro Carolino (untroubled by not actually being able to speak English). Today his literary tour de force is celebrated for the sheer incoherence of some of his translations:

  • He go to four feet.
  • Is sure the road?
  • He know ride horse.
  • That not says a word, consent.
  • What do him?
  • I have mind to vomit.
  • That pond it seems me many multiplied of fishes. Let us amuse rather to the fishing.

A century later, pick up a Chinglish instruction leaflet (“Please not the water to inside play” or “To take notice of safe, the slippery are very crafty”) and it might seem as though we’ve not come much further. What certainly is clearer is that professional translators are not going to be replaced by machines for a good while yet despite Mr Google’s astonishing efforts.

Just like all those people who denigrate authors at cocktail parties with “Oh, I could write a book,” increasing numbers of people also believe that if they have a smattering of a second language, they can be translators. Most serious professionals are freelancers, fighting for quality in a sea of cut-price mediocrity as they try to stay afloat when there’s always someone, somewhere, who will do it for several cents a word less and never mind the quality or experience beyond price.

I’ve certainly been incredibly lucky in the years since a clichéd mid-life crisis propelled me out of mainstream journalism and into translation and editing.

In an era where translation agencies (of which the Netherlands has many hundreds), are as varied in quality as human nature itself, it’s gratifying to find one which really does give a damn, as Gone With The Wind was not originally allowed to put it. Where it’s not just the bottom line which is primary, but the actual quality of its work and – not always self-evident these days – where there’s also care for those at the coalface of the work, the actual translators.

And when you find a good one, either as a client or a wordsmith, stay with it like a rabbit in headlights. I’m still with the very personally-oriented Maverick, more than a decade and a thousand jobs on, because it’s an agency which cares, which cherishes its clients and nurtures its ‘talent’, the translators. It pays them a fair wage for their work, shields them from occasional client tantrums, and all while realising that translators are people too, not just per-word production lines – after all, as Shakespeare put it, “If you prick us do we not bleed?”

Yes we need the occasional boost to our egos by occasionally being told we’ve done a good job (but only when we really have or the currency is steadily devalued). Yes we need time-off to recharge our batteries with the certainty we will not have been replaced by someone cheaper in the interim, and yes we need the honesty that when the employer says the cheque is in the post, it really is.

Translation’s an odd business, though you might be numbed to its more entertaining sides after flailing around in yet another impenetrable contract translation, your gazillionth CV (the bane of any sentient translator’s life but hey it pays the bills), yet another silk purse to be made from a sow’s ear of a website flogging anything from Dutch cheese-making software to the type of dodgy services your mother warned you about.

Translating and editing is a rewording activity (with apologies for the pun….). It’s particularly so when you have the good fortune to stumble on an agency which cares. Like Maverick. And having said so, yes, thanks, I would indeed have liked to have had a coffee if anyone had have been was offering.

Terence Kennedy is NL>EN editor and translator based in France.