Monday, June 17, 2013

Attack of the Zombie Translator

Photo credit: Chris Chabot

The other day I was talking to a friend who works as a building contractor. He was telling me how even though he’s not the cheapest guy around he never lacks for work because of his meticulousness and commitment to quality. I told him that it was exactly the same for me, and we went on to bemoan the general lack of quality in our respective professions. 

Little did I know that I would come across a glaring example a few days later. I was translating some voice-overs for a film on diving in the Caribbean that will be released in both French and English versions. Many of the people in the film spoke English, which had been transcribed for translation into French. As I was translating the French voice-overs, I noticed that there had been several errors in the English transcription, which had in turn created some very serious errors in the French translation. 

For instance, a dive tour operator with a South African accent was explaining how “the island relies on dive tours.” This had been transcribed as “the island relies on doctors” and translated as “l’île dépend des médecins”—completely ridiculous in the context.

Another huge error occurred when a speaker was explaining his role in the establishment of a botanic park. In this case, “botanic” had been transcribed as “platonic” and translated as “platonique.” Seriously, how do you write “parc platonique” without a huge red flag going up?

Some of the fault clearly lies with the transcriber. In the case of the South African saying “dive tours” I had to listen to it twice myself before I understood. But if the transcriber had been more attentive, the context should at least have made it clear that the word “doctor” was not right.

To me, however, the French translator made the more egregious error. It is a translator’s job to grasp the context and write a coherent translation. This clearly didn’t happen on several occasions here. Whenever I translate subtitles or voice-overs for a film, I always ask for access to the film itself. It invariably provides visual cues that often help me select a tense or decide how much I can leave out in adapting a subtitle. I’m not sure what happened with this translator, but they didn’t do their job. It might as well have been a zombie doing the translation.

Partly because I began to double check the English transcription and the subsequent French translation as I went through the film (at no charge to my client), it took me about two hours to translate just over 600 words. Pretty slow going for an experienced translator. On the other hand, I feel that this kind of service—going the extra mile, going above and beyond the call of duty, to trot out a couple of tired aphorisms—is why my clients trust me and appreciate my work. They know that I care about their product at least as much as they do.

It seems to me that in an age where machine translation is making ever more alarming encroachments into the territory of human translators, we non-zombies must strive more than ever to demonstrate our superiority to our stiff-jointed competitors. Clearly, my anonymous zombie-colleague did not live up to that standard today. I can only hope that my own efforts made up for it in some way.

Now where did I put that shotgun?

No comments: