One of the most fascinating – and, at times, irritating – aspects of translation is where there is no direct one-to-one relationship between words in the source language and the target language.
Take the word ‘conductor’, for example. In English, the word covers a variety of meanings. In Swedish – a language closely related to English – each meaning is covered by a different word. Get it wrong and there could be hilarious consequences. Yet no English speaker, on reading in a review of an orchestral concert that ‘X is an excellent conductor’, would be conjuring up images of someone standing in front of the violin section checking tickets, or a man or woman made of copper standing in a bucket of water. The context makes it clear. Unfortunately, a small dictionary that just lists the words probably doesn’t.
Then there are the so-called ‘false friends’. These are words that look the same in two languages but have different meanings. They often share a common origin, but their meanings have gone their separate ways over time. For example, the Swedish adjective ‘aktuell’ looks temptingly close to ‘actual’, yet in thirteen years of translation work I cannot remember an occasion when this would have been suitable. In Swedish, it covers a variety of meanings, from ‘current’ to ‘pressing’ or ‘urgent’. Getting it wrong would make the text meaningless.
It could be worse, though. The English word ‘preservative’ most definitely does not survive the Channel crossing intact. In French, a ‘préservatif’ is a condom! You would hope that those developing machine translation technology would be aware of this!
Finally, there are words that simply have no equivalent at all in the other language. Sometimes, you wonder how other languages survive without them. Two Swedish favourites of mine are ‘lagom’ and ‘ork’. ‘Lagom’ enjoys a rather revered status among language enthusiasts; its mandatory adoption by all other European languages should be the subject of an emergency EU Directive. It is both an adjective and an adverb and goes beyond the usual definition of ‘just right’ or ‘just the right amount’. It actually crops up rather infrequently in translation. The same is not true of the noun ‘ork’ and its even more fascinating associated verb, ‘orka’. Medical reports seem to be awash with references to patients having no ‘ork’ or not ‘orking’ to work in full-time employment. It can often be translated as ‘energy’ (in the sense of ‘lacks the energy to cope with full-time employment’), but somehow the English doesn’t do full justice to it.
All of the above are potential pitfalls in the translation process. Of course, experienced translators such as those used by good translation agencies will be familiar with these. Translation is far from just taking one word in one language and replacing it with one in another.
Meanwhile, for some examples of false friends in various languages (including some with mild adult humour), this from the BBC might prove amusing: