The Complexities of Translation in the Modern Day

Published on: July 22, 2019

« Здравствуйте, доброе утро. »

« Bonjour, et bienvenue au programme. »

Being fluent in Russian and French isn’t essential to understand the above sentences: in this day and age, we have access to a multitude of online translation tools that can do the job for us. What’s more, we can be fairly confident that not only will they translate text faster than us, they’ll do it better, too.

But what about opinion pieces and complex insight stories? Can online translation tools keep up with the linguistic nuances that define pieces, such as French newspaper Le Monde’s scathing criticism of Boris Johnson last month?

Providing media monitoring in an ever-more connected world can be challenging. The international nature of communications and the news cycle means there is a wider breadth of news more frequently. Adding language into the mix creates certain complications.

Language is not just about the words and their meaning: when thinking about news and reporting, language also implies tone, nuance, sarcasm, and other linguistic tools which affect how an article or report is received and understood by the reader. It is these tools which are often left out in Google translate, for instance, as anyone who has used it will know.

As a company with an international workforce and bases, CMG acutely understands the need to incorporate accurate and precise translations in its foreign language monitoring. Our current foreign language capabilities include Arabic, French and Russian, consisting of both language abilities and degrees of cultural understanding gained from in-country experience.

These capacities are highly valued in media intelligence as they enable our team to read between the lines of any given alert and maintain the rhetoric intended by the author.

This is an essential capability for any team analysing and monitoring international media. Whether it involves product reports, statements of government policy intent or real-time news alerts, accidentally mangling a translation can drastically change meaning and affect the quality of a service given to a client.

However, translation is tricky. The issue is not being incorrect, but rather, not picking up on the rhetorical subtleties. For instance, in the case of the above-mentioned Le Monde article, which appeared in the French press on June 12, 2019 and which sought to criticize Boris Johnson’s career and personality, there are several sentences which carry these subtleties. These are examined briefly below.

  • « Qu’il prenne enfin aujourd’hui la responsabilité du Brexit pourrait découler d’une certaine logique. »

This sentence comes after a rather scathing inditement of Boris Johnson’s career with The Telegraph newspaper as their Brussels correspondent. Directly translated, it means, «It should be perfectly logical that [Boris Johnson] finally now takes responsibility for Brexit.” This is a loyal translation from the French text, but it still misses the tone: in English, the sentence is quite neutral and almost polite in its criticism. In French, however, the sentence practically oozes sarcasm and disdain. The author’s tone of heightened derision for Boris gets lost in linguistic barriers as the English words do not carry the snarky weight of the French here.

  • « C’est cet homme- qui prétend aujourd’hui prendre la barre du paquebot Britannia en détresse. »

Similarly, while discussing his “chauvinistic rhetoric,” the article states, “This is the man who would take the helm of the Britannia liner in distress”. While in English this could easily be understood as a commentary or criticism (and a typically French one, at that) of the UK’s current political situation, in French it is quite clear that it is a direct criticism of Boris himself. For instance, the use of “-là” as highlighted above marks the derogatory tone, as the idea behind the words is essentially: “The situation over there isn’t great, and this guy, of all people, thinks he can fix it.”

These are only a few examples from one authored text in one language, but it would not be hard to find many more. It is shockingly easy to translate an article correctly yet entirely miss the point of a text.

How does CMG get around this?

Different translators take different approaches. These range from staying as loyal to the original text as possible, to finding equivalent in meaning but linguistically different idioms and rhetorical devices, a method which changes the text but preserves the meaning.

The key point is that in working with international media, we cannot yet count on mechanic translation tools to recognise these complexities and account for them. Human language assets remain essential to any team dedicated to preserving the meaning of any foreign language source. As we’ve seen above, this is not just about knowing the words, but understanding the cultural context.

Between them, our Crier analysts speak Spanish, French, Arabic and Russian. They are focused on harbouring these capabilities to better serve our clients as we work in an international media environment. As the reach of the Internet grows and the quantity of online news sources multiplies by the second, it is more important than ever to consider the role of language and the risks of mistranslation in the news cycle.

~ Maisie