Translators' Workshop 2017

Event report

by Angela Weckler

The Germans are fond of saying “Alle Jahre wieder….”. They are, of course, referring to Christmas coming round every year, but we can say the same of the translation workshop, which has been held for many years now. The Germans are also fond of saying that “Berlin ist eine Reise wert” – and once again, we can agree that it is always worthwhile to visit Berlin. Some 27 people had gathered to learn more about the things that interest translators.

After a brief introduction from committee member Jadwiga Bobrowska, the day was kicked off by Richard Delaney, whose topic was “Making sense of legal translation”. Richard, himself a qualified barrister, talked about whether, as some people insist, only a lawyer can translate legal texts, and his view is that the translator must obviously have an understanding of the legal issues, but need not have a formal law qualification. It is vital to understand both legal systems and thus be able to avoid what he calls the “unknown unknowns”, i.e. when the translator has not only misunderstood a harmless-looking word, but is blithely unaware of his/her mistake. He also debunked the idea that translators must always translate into their native language – in legal settings it is better to have an accurate text that perhaps sounds a little odd linguistically, e.g. when written by a non-native speaker, than one that sounds polished but does not faithfully convey the meaning and intent of the original.

Indeed, given the differences between legal systems there is no need for the translated text to sound like an original or be especially elegant. Many texts are supposed to be ambiguous, especially EU texts, and unless a text is still in the draft stage, the translator should avoid trying to interpret or second-guess the meaning and point out any problem to the author instead. Richard illustrated the problem with thinking one knows the answer: “What is the German for manslaughter?” he asked. Most people said Totschlag, which is what the dictionaries say. However, this is not good enough for a court of law. The direct equivalent would be “fahrlässige Tötung”, i.e. there was no intention to kill. The German definition of Mord (murder) is so narrow, involving base motives and a totally unsuspecting victim, so that English has to call the crime “murder with aggravated circumstances.”

Still on legal topics, Christin Dallmann followed with a talk in German about the language of German law. To start with she mentioned a basic problem with legal language, namely that it is often intended for both a professional and general public, being an expression of state authority that is to be obeyed – it is not meant to sound “nice”. To this day there are very few words of foreign origin in Germany’s written laws, which aim to be clear and comprehensible. The earliest German legal texts were translated from Latin and therefore the intent was to inform the “non-academic”. Legal language is also conservative in a positive sense, in that the meaning of terms does not change. The language of administration is designed, although many may doubt it, to be clearly understandable, and the formulaic phrases are meant to ensure that the message in an official letter is the same for everyone. Academic commentaries on legal issues make no pretence of addressing the general public but are for a professional audience, and the language used is full of Latin words and technical terms.

Having explained some of the quirks of legalese, Christin moved on to a quiz: she gave us ten words, not generally in everyday use, with three likely-sounding definitions each. Sometimes the audience got the right answer, but the more we thought about them, the harder it was.

My personal favourite was the choice of definitions for “Gelegenheitsverkehr”.
a) Taxis, Mietwagen und ähnliches
b) der juristische Fachbegeriff für One-Night-Stand
c) eine nur unregelmäßig benutzte Bahnschiene.

They all sound so very plausible. Answer at the end of this report.

The next speaker, Barbara Müller-Grant, talked about some popular English names for diseases that normally have complicated Latin/Greek names. In the Middle Ages, for example, ailments tended to be named after saints – St. Lawrence’s Fire was what we now call eczema. St. Anthony’s Fire was the far more serious complaint of ergotism - poisoning caused by eating bread contaminated by a fungus, although people did not know that then. In German the popular term is extremely misleading – Mutterkorn sounds very harmless, even positive. How the saint came to be associated with a painful illness remained, unfortunately, a mystery. Other terms we encounter in Shakespeare without really knowing what they are, apart from somehow unpleasant, include the ague (malaria), palsy (paralysis) and dropsy (oedema).

Moving forward, Barbara spoke of diseases named for the person who discovered or first described them, e.g. Down Syndrome (trisonomy 21) or for a famous sufferer, e.g. Lou Gehrig’s (ALS or motor neurone disease). Sometimes the popular name for a disease, such as Mongolism for Down Syndrome, is based on racist prejudice, in that the typical face of a child with the syndrome was thought to look like that of people from Mongolia. In keeping with Winston Churchill’s famous remark about the dangers of sports, many modern ailments have names associated with physical activity; they include tennis/golfer elbow, holiday heart syndrome, jogger’s hip/knee/foot/ankle/nipples and goggle migraine. Some hobby-induced diseases have gone out of fashion, such as pigeon breeder’s lung.

After lunch Isabel Schwagereit spoke, in German, about Standards (in German Normen) and the question of whether they are a help or a hindrance. Although unfamiliar to many of us, this topic is set to become increasingly relevant for younger colleagues. Isabel started with a brief history of standardization, which is a perfectly logical result of globalization. If goods are to be produced all over the world, it is important to make sure that the products are of the same quality, wherever they come from. After standards for manufactured goods have been established, the obvious next step is to set up standards for processes, services and organizations. And the moment it is borne in mind that an EU-made machine may not be exported without documentation translated into the recipient country’s language, the connection between standards and translators becomes apparent.

As increasing numbers of people and processes became involved in producing a translated text, calls for a standard grew. There are now standards for translators, conference interpreters, community interpreters, post-editors and for the technology involved. The ISO 17100 was originally intended for translation agencies but can be scaled to the individual free-lancer, and Isabel concentrated on this standard and her own experience in gaining ISO certification. Having been on the committee that drafted the standard, Isabel did not approach the subject as a complete novice. Her main questions were “What will the market for technical translators be like in 5 to 10 years? Do I need to bother with certification?” Having decided that, in view of the changing nature of the market, the answer to the second question was yes, Isabel set to work. First of all it is necessary to sit down and think long and hard about personal organization in the office. This involves not only items such as order books, customer accounts, data security and backup and how to deal with large volumes of data, but also the trickier issue of obtaining proof of the qualifications of the people with whom one collaborates.

A customer may want to see what kind of people are behind the “four-eyes” principle. If a customer, having realized that this service costs more, decides to do without this second-party check, this too must be documented. However, despite the extra effort involved, customers react very well to the fact that their translator has made the effort to obtain certification, especially if they too are ISO certified in their particular field.

Isabel admitted there are drawbacks; the need to document and file everything that happens in the office is not everyone’s favourite task. Customers tend to think that a certified translator is quicker and available 24/7, and he/she has to accept responsibility for the quality of colleagues’ work. On balance, however, certification can be a way to defend one’s own niche against machine translation and price-dumping.

Speaking in a similar vein, Deborah Butler, CIOL communications + marketing manager, gave a brief account of the Institute’s campaign to professionalize the industry and encourage people to become chartered. As we are all only too well aware, “translator” is not a protected title, whereas “chartered linguist” is. Chartered status is an accreditation but not a licence. Deborah told us that the process had been simplified and members pay no fee for chartership. The prerequisite, apart from qualifications, is a commitment to continuing professional development (CPD) – which should comprise at least 30 hours over a two-year period. The talk has already, so we hear, encouraged one person in the audience to apply for chartership.

Our final speaker, Ian Hinchliffe, had been warned that he would be last and might find the audience in slightly somnambulant state. He rose magnificently to the challenge, giving a lively presentation that was both amusing and highly informative. Ian said early on that although the talk was titled “Translation / localization for IKEA”, the Swedish company does not actually “do” localization.

Everyone knows some wonderful product names that sound odd in another language – such as Fartfull and Jerker in English or Gutvik in German. However, IKEA has its own system of naming products and it is unabashedly Swedish – typically men’s names or the names of towns and villages are used. From a marketing point of view, this can bring unexpected rewards. When sales of Baräkna glass-ware went through the roof in the US it turned out that customers were buying them as drinking glasses, not as vases. It can also have downsides; for many years IKEA refused to alter the size of bed linen to suit different markets.

Sometimes a Swedish word is so untranslatable that it migrates into other languages. The closest that English comes to övertag is “mastery” or “getting the upper hand”. Övertag is now a business studies concept for unbeatable affordability and quality. Translating IKEA’s Swedish into English brings some of the same challenges all translators face. A suggested strapline of “More møbler for you money” (nice alliteration) was rejected on the grounds that English people would not understand what møbler were – despite the fact that everyone knows IKEA is a furniture company. In the same year (1987) a famous German car company advertised in the UK with “Vorsprung durch Technik”.

Ian asked the question, “Are metaphors a translator’s nightmare?” The answer would seem to be in whether the marketing department will let you get away with it. “You’ll think you’ve died and gone to kitchen” was not accepted for a new line of kitchen furniture. However, localized advertising can work, such as “IKEA, the light brigade that doesn’t charge as much”. The photo is of lamps and light fittings, but the charge of the light brigade is still a concept to British readers, many of whom read the eponymous poem at school, and the line works. In a similar way, Swedes associate Småland with many positive ideas; forests and the countryside, honest, thrifty and industrious folk, back-to-the roots etc. Therefore, when IKEA tells customers to sleep Småland style, all these ideas of cosy innocence and fresh air resonate too. The English version cannot hope to do the same, but how about “Just lie back and think of Sweden”? This is a perfect example of what the translator should aim to do. He/she should deconstruct the message, analyse it and create equivalence. This goes far beyond getting the words out of one language into another.

A huge thank-you to all our speakers, without whom such events cannot exist. If you are sorry to have missed it this year, reserve some time in November 2018, when the next Translation Workshop will be held.


Answer a) is correct

The German Society continue their successful annual Translators' Workshop, this time for a third visit to Berlin.

Speakers & topics

Deborah Butler: Becoming a Chartered Linguist
Christin Dallmann / Richard Delaney FCIL CL: Legal topic TBC
Ian Hinchliffe: Translation/localisation for IKEA
Barbara Müller-Grant: Diseases with a (linguistic) twist
Isabel Schwagreit: Übersetzungs- und Dolmetschnormen

Booking and accommodation

Full booking and accommodation information.

Please email the German Society to register.


November 11th, 2017 9:00 AM   to   5:00 PM
B645, WC1X 8BG
United Kingdom
Events +
Category German Language Society
Event image

German Society