Metaphors, slang and jargon: why translators turn to drink

Metaphors, slang and jargon have a lot to answer for – in any language. Nothing is worse for a translator of business text, in particular, than text that’s heaving with them.

Nearly all languages have numerous metaphors, slang and jargon that, if translated literally, make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Predictably, English is probably the worst.

Metaphors, slang and jargon: why translators turn to drink

New GM model that wasn’t going anywhere – not in Spanish, anyway.

We’ve all heard the story about General Motors Europe who launched a small hatchback model some years ago called the Nova It wasn’t long before snickering giggles were heard in Spain – from Ford dealers perhaps – pointing out that in Spanish “no va,” means “doesn’t go.” Whoops.

When metaphors, slang and jargon have been very unfunny commercial jokes

Next we have the jokes that have been hanging around the internet for years now but still make advertisers and big brands cringe. Remember these? I’m sure they made their translators want to burn every advertising copywriter’s house down…

The Dairy Association’s huge success with the campaign “Got Milk?” prompted them to expand advertising to Mexico. It was soon brought to their attention the Spanish translation read “Are you lactating?”

Coors put its slogan “Turn it loose” into Spanish, where it was read as “Suffer from diarrhea.”

Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer Electrolux used the following in an American campaign: “Nothing sucks like Electrolux.” (NB: I remember seeing a showcard with this tagline in a store window on a busy street in London, England. Passers-by were splitting their sides. I mean, they were laughing…)

Clairol introduced the “Mist Stick,” a curling iron, into Germany only to find out that “mist” is slang for manure.  Not too many people had a use for the manure stick.

When Gerber started selling baby food in Africa, they used the same packaging as in the US, with the smiling baby on the label. Later they learned that in Africa, companies routinely put pictures on the label of what’s inside, since many people cannot read.

Colgate introduced a toothpaste in France called Cue, the name of a notorious porno magazine.

Pepsi‘s “Come alive with the Pepsi Generation” translated into “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave,” in Chinese.

The Coca-Cola name in China was first read as “Ke-kou-ke-la,” meaning “Bite the wax tadpole” or “female horse stuffed with wax,” depending upon the dialect. Coke then researched 40,000 characters to find a phonetic equivalent “ko-kou-ko-le,” translating into “Happiness in the mouth.”

Frank Perdue‘s chicken slogan “It takes a strong man to make a tender chicken” was translated into Spanish as “It takes an aroused man to make a chicken affectionate.”

When Parker Pen marketed a ball-point pen in Mexico, its ads were supposed to have read, “It won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you.” Instead, the company thought that the word “embarazar” (to impregnate) meant to embarrass, so the ad read: “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant.”

When there’s nothing for metaphors, slang and jargon to be translated into – what next?

Now, of course we lurch into another problem: many of the world’s 7,000 or so languages simply don’t have  words or phrases to translate into when it comes to recent high tech developments.

This article from The Economist explains how they’re trying to cope in western Africa…

Mozilla has 230 localisation teams, says Jeff Beatty, who co-ordinates some from his office in Utah. Their work takes both time and ingenuity. Firefox for a computer uses about 40,000 words; for the phone OS, 16,000. Translators must express technological terms in languages shaped by livestock, farming and fishing, and choose alternatives for culture-specific words such as “cookie”, “file” and “mouse”.

Ibrahima Sarr, a Senegalese coder, led the translation of Firefox into Fulah, which is spoken by 20m people from Senegal to Nigeria. “Crash” became hookii (a cow falling over but not dying); “timeout” became a honaama (your fish has got away). “Aspect ratio” became jeendondiral, a rebuke from elders when a fishing net is wrongly woven. In Malawi’s Chichewa language, which has 10m speakers, “cached pages” became mfutso wa tsamba, or bits of leftover food.

The windowless houses of the 440,000 speakers of Zapotec, a family of indigenous languages in Mexico, meant that computer “windows” became “eyes”.”

So how can we write text for translation that won’t drive its translators to drink?

If you’re writing some text that you know is to be translated into other languages, keep the metaphors, slang and jargon out if you can, without strangling the piece completely. 

ORIGINAL: Her locks were flawlessly styled into tumbling curls while a slick of red lippie added a pop of colour.
FOR TRANSLATION: Her long, curly hair was beautifully styled, and she wore bright red lipstick for some additional colour.

ORIGINAL: The slim-fitting number showed off her svelte-figure, with the midi -length skirt teamed with towering strappy heels.
FOR TRANSLATION: The close-fitting dress showed off her slim, elegant body, with a mid-calf length skirt and high-heeled sandals.

ORIGINAL: The model, who helped take quirky mainstream with the famous gap in her front teeth, let her platinum locks flow freely and their natural waves framed her face beautifully
FOR TRANSLATION: The model, who helped make unconventional looks fashionable with the famous gap between her two front teeth, wore her light blonde hair down with its waves complementing her face.

See? Just because you strip out the metaphors, slang and jargon it doesn’t mean the text has to be utterly dreary.

If you’re writing technical text for translation into languages which may not yet have their own versions of your terms in their vocabulary, make sure you add a sub-note describing the terms’ meanings, in English.

This may help in the translation process. I’m no techie so I can’t quote any examples of IT, but here are a few examples of what I mean, using medical jargon…

ORIGINAL: Medication cannula
EXPLANATION: A metal or plastic tube that’s inserted into a patient’s vein so fluids like saline solution and medications can be to put into the patient’s body.

ORIGINAL: Metastasis
EXPLANATION: When cancer cells break away from the primary tumor and set up new, secondary tumors in other parts of the patient’s body.

ORIGINAL: Trans-urethral resection of bladder tumor (TURBT)
EXPLANATION: Removal of a tumor from inside the patient’s bladder using surgical instruments placed through a hollow tube called a rigid cystoscope, which is inserted the patient’s bladder up his/her urethra (urine canal).  

What tips can you share on how to keep translators of metaphors, slang and jargon from hitting the bottle?

Please share!

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