Lost and disgraced in translation

Choosing an unprofessional translator without the appropriate credentials is the equivalent of having an appendectomy performed by someone who studied medicine by watching the medical drama ‘House.’

Lost in translation? Only the Hebrew wording on this sign contains a warning to keep away. (photo credit: AMIT BAR-YOSEF)
Lost in translation? Only the Hebrew wording on this sign contains a warning to keep away.
(photo credit: AMIT BAR-YOSEF)
The embarrassing fake sign language interpretation at Nelson Mandela’s funeral was one of those instances when you ask yourself: “How in the world could this happen?” Well, it can and it does, including here in Israel, every day.
I recently attended a world premiere of a documentary film. The Hebrew subtitles were so erroneous and sloppy that it was obvious the “translator” had no relevant professional background, and did not invest enough time and effort. I felt that this was artistically and culturally criminal, because non-English speakers could not fully enjoy the product of a year and a half of brilliant producing, directing, filming and editing. I wrote the producer, who told me it would be redone.
Considering the fact that translation is such a big deal in Israel, it is surprising and disappointing that the field has not been properly regulated.
Anyone can call himself “a translator” and mess up testimonies, prescriptions, lectures and movies.
Our country is filled with immigrants, minorities, foreign workers, international students and tourists.
We consume mostly American and British entertainment with Hebrew subtitles. Israel is extensively involved in the global market, requiring translation of legal documents, business interactions and international conferences.
During Operation Protective Edge, I was asked to review a formal document, which had been translated from Hebrew to English, before dissemination to international partners. It was so bad – I had to practically rewrite it. It wasn’t only spelling mistakes and mix-ups such as “systematic” instead of “systemic,” and “deadline” instead of “timeline.”
The English version only loosely mirrored ideas and terms, sometimes missing the point entirely.
Some terms were translated literally, even if they differed from the intended message or lacked political and cultural sensitivity. For instance, describing villages near the Gaza Strip as “settlements” is technically true, but may throw a politically sensitive international reader off-course. Another mistake was literally translating Hebrew names of operations instead of using their coined English names (“Pillar of Smoke” instead of “Pillar of Defense”).
When I explained to the client how bad the translation was, he said that it was done by a translation company which is widely used by Israel’s official institutions.
In 2012, I inspected the simultaneous interpretation at an international conference. In my left ear, in Hebrew, I heard: “This model can hardly be seen as a representative of the phenomenon we are exploring,” while in my right ear, in English, it was: “I – eh – think that this – eh – this is very very – eh – interesting.”
After a short while, the Russian representative said: “They call this interpretation? Do they think I’m stupid?” Sure enough, he was soon gone, along with others who had originally planned to spend the entire day.
These were rare occasions when the client had requested quality assurance. But many times businesses, organizations and governmental agencies choose the lowest bidder, and allow phony quacks to do the job instead of professionals. They get away with it because clients lack yardsticks for evaluating the product, and the target audience is either unaware of the discrepancies, or too polite to complain.
The problem is that clients do not understand the complexities and sensitivities of quality translation.
Translation means transferring ideas from a written source language into a target language, whereas interpretation is paraphrasing ideas orally.
In consecutive interpretation (CI), the interpreter waits for the speaker to finish a sentence or an idea, before rendering it into the target language, while in simultaneous interpretation (SI) the interpreter speaks together with the source language speaker.
SI requires an incredible set of skills.
The first is bilingualism, which is a rare phenomenon. Second is lingual agility, enabling instantaneous flipping back and forth with the right term. Third is a broad educational background and a robust range of professionally specific technical vocabulary. Fourth is the incredible skill of listening and talking at the same time. It’s live, so you only get one shot. Fifth, an interpreter must keep sharp and focused for extended periods of time under pressure.
Sixth, it is necessary to withstand the confinement of the translator’s booth, under less than perfect environmental conditions. And lastly, an interpreter must possess qualities of perceptiveness, sensitivity and judgment.
A good translation needs to capture not only the technical dialogue, but convey the atmosphere and “tone,” and reflect cultural nuances, slang and humor. The point is to mirror ideas, and keep the message intact, while bridging between two different grammatical structures. Sometimes a translation may read beautifully, but divert dramatically from the original message.
Intense concentration levels lead to exhaustion and fatigue, which is why interpreters work in teams of two, alternating every 30 minutes or so. If you are offered a good deal for one interpreter – you’re being scammed.
Use of professional equipment is critical. In SI, those listening to the interpretation wear headphones, and the interpreters speak into a microphone in a soundproof booth.
This enables them to concentrate without distraction, and prevents the sound of the interpreter’s voice from disturbing other participants.
During the recent visit of the pope to Israel, a cheap provider of technical services was chosen for one of the segments. There was no booth and the audio equipment didn’t work, so no one, including the pope, could hear the interpretation. What a disgrace!
Probably the most commonly consumed form of translation in Israel is subtitles in movies and TV shows.
Sadly, it is also the most abused.
Punch lines of jokes are missed, and idioms are translated literally. When Frank Underwood (House of Cards) said: “If a bullet comes my way... I must be quick to duck,” the Hebrew subtitles read: “I must be quick as a duck.” This reflects the standard we settle for, and it’s a colossal disgrace.
Subtitle translators in Israel work under dismal conditions. As secondary subcontractors, they get paid around NIS 430 for a feature film, which is absolutely crazy. No wonder the market is flooded with untrained and unskilled “translators.” I fully support the ongoing struggle of the subtitle translators against the big networks, which think they can get away with delivering a poor product to the public, while trampling over people and professional ethics.
Many insufficient translation jobs are the result not only of the level of the translators, but the harried conditions under which they perform.
When inadequately paid, even talented translators can’t devote the time and attention required to produce a quality product. Hebrew has a high degree of grammatical gender, so when translators only relate to the genderless English text and do not take the time to carefully follow the story, the result is shameful mistakes.
When translation is turned into an undefined, second rate, low paying job, this leads to mediocrity, shallowness and professional disrespect.
It’s about time that the field of translation came under strict legal and professional guidelines. But until this happens, what can you do to ensure quality translation services? Understanding the complexity is a good first step. If you’ve read this far, you realize that choosing an unprofessional translator without the appropriate credentials is the equivalent of having an appendectomy performed by someone who studied medicine by watching the medical drama House.
Hire only a company which specializes in translation. A good rule of thumb is to keep away from companies managed by people who aren’t translators themselves. Without a profound understanding of the intricacies, they may lack commitment to the principles of the profession and make grave mistakes.
Choose a company which employs certified translators from an accredited academic institution (In Israel, this means graduates of the MA program in translation and interpreting studies at Bar-Ilan University) or who have otherwise proven themselves to be competent. In Israel we have an abundance of extremely capable and talented translators, but they struggle to compete with cheap competitors who promise a lot and deliver little or nothing.
Remember that even an excellent interpreter will not be heard if the equipment is lousy.
Here’s a revolutionary recommendation for producers and directors: Hire the best translators you can find, and make them an integral part of your production team. This will ensure a culturally adapted artistic whole, instead of allowing anonymous subcontractors to tarnish your masterpiece.
Beware of the charlatans, and remember that some charlatans warn you on their website to beware of the charlatans.
By upholding high standards of quality and ethics, you are ensuring that your conference, visit, document or movie will be a success and not a fiasco. Do this out of respect for the target audience – the real clients, and above all – respect for the ideas being conveyed.
There are some who claim that translation software will soon completely replace human translators.
Mark my words – airliners will cross the Atlantic with crew-less cockpits before any software can translate an episode of Game of Thrones.
The writer is a former pilot in the IAF, and founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd.