Only words – or is it?

Just recently I translated a presentation that had been extracted from its visual PowerPoint background. Possibly because of the size of the file, maybe the visuals weren’t ready, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, I felt really lost, though when I finally received the finished product for proof reading it looked fine. And fortunately the client was happy for me to see the whole thing and didn’t take the view that if I had done my job properly the words would be okay and therefore the whole thing should look right.

In this case there were no puns or any other traps, my main concern was whether the text length would fit in with the visuals. However, I can think of two past cases where the pictures were crucial.

Case 1: Many years ago, I and my then team translated a book of animal fables from Dutch. In the last story, a group of birds  emigrated to find a better world. The black-headed gull was the cook among them. After reading the English about three times this struck me as odd – no rhyme or reason to it. Further consultation of the Dutch text explained it: the Dutch word for a black-headed gull is “kokmeeuw”, the Dutch word for a cook is “kok”. Nice pun, but I had missed it entirely. So I rejigged the staffing assignments and made the kookaburra the cook. Good thinking, eh? One small snag: some time after delivering the text I realised there were visuals I had never seen – I only hope they didn’t depict a black-headed gull happily making poffertjes.

Case 2: A more recent promotional text had as the main instruction that each sentence in the source language was focused on a specific strong noun, and that the corresponding word in English also had to be a noun and mean the same (yes, I know it sounds obvious, but there are times when a necessary change of metaphor can throw wordplays in the original text into dire confusion, see case 1 above). So the original brief was tough enough to start with, given the English-language predilection for verb constructions. When I looked at the visuals – which the client had been thoughtful enough to provide – I realised there was an added complication: each sentence went over a two-page spread, and the graphics “bled” into the text space. So in addition to the requirement to copy the source sentence structure without violating English/US sensibilities, the key word also had to be in roughly the same  position in the sentence so that it was in a prominent position, on the left-hand side of the page and not buried in swathes of colour or falling down the fold in the middle. It must have been very difficult in the source language, but even more so in the translation where the normal syntax would be different.

Clients, remember to mention visuals if they are available. Translators, if there are clear signs there should be graphics (fig. references or giveaways like “as you can see from the graph above…), ask for them. You could save yourselves anything from time to embarrassment.

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