The devil is in the detail!

Posted on 21st February, 2020

When I first settled in France 13 years ago, I would regularly drive past a sign as I left a local village that said: GOOD ROAD!




The intention was honourable. English-speaking visitors to the region were being addressed in their own language, and someone had gone to the effort of having a big sign printed. But they had not gone to the effort of checking with a native English speaker that their sign made sense. It looked as though they had simply asked Google Translate for a translation of Bonne route, and this is what they were given. Good road. Whereas what they really wanted to say was 'Safe journey'.


The quality of a translation matters!


These days Google Translate has improved significantly, but ask it to translate Bonne route and it still gives you that same answer. Give it anything more complex, and it delivers a translation that is often awkward, sometimes misleading and occasionally completely wrong. This is because machine translation has no sensitivity to culture or context. Take the beginning of this simple sentence, for example:


Le patrimoine magnifique du Périgord Noir…


Patrimoine is commonly used in French to describe the cultural heritage of a region. There is a similar word in English, 'patrimony', and I have seen this used on tourism websites in the area. It is accurate but not - in this context - a good translation, as 'patrimony' is rarely used in English, and does not reflect the tone of the original. 'Heritage' is a much better solution.


Type the sentence into Google Translate and we get this:


'The magnificent heritage of black perigord...'


So the machine has got 'heritage' right, but with no sensitivity to the cultural context, it has reduced le Périgord Noir to simply 'black perigord'. This is unnecessary, as the region is commonly referred to by its French name in English, complete with capital letters and accent. We also use it in English with the definite article, 'the Périgord Noir' (just as we use the definite article with the names of French departments: 'the Dordogne' or 'the Haute-Vienne'). A fluent translation of the beginning of this sentence would therefore be:


'The magnificent heritage of the Périgord Noir...'


If you are looking to promote a place or a product, its description in English needs to read beautifully. It needs to have been written by a native English speaker. And more than that, it needs to have been written by a native English translator. Because a properly qualified translator chooses her words with care, taking into account the cultural context. There are often several possible translations of a sentence that are accurate, but a good translator will spend time choosing the solution that is most appropriate. Small details make a big difference, and your clients will appreciate it. 


The quality of the translator matters!

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