Lost in Translation

Having labored a little over translating Mariah and Byron Edgington’s Journey Well list of self-affirmations into Danish, I decided to write a piece on the ongoing translation task that all of us who function in a foreign language continuously engage with.

In international social science research projects, the term “conceptual equivalence” is thrown around and makes it cumbersome to make good research questions that can apply equally well in many different countries.  The same goes for translating emotions – and words evoking emotions – as in Mariah and Byron’s list.  We want a translation to evoke the same emotion as the original word.  If “more than enough” evokes an emotion related to being “too much”, Houston, we have a problem.

A translation is sometimes more than just the same word in a different language.

Let me start with a short background story.

In my early twenties, one of my best friends was a colleague who had a huge stack of paperback novels.  She had been a flight attendant for a couple of years, and cheap English language paperbacks seems to be everywhere in airports.  Hence, she has acquired more than a few.  The books were not the reason we were friends, but they did provide ample reading material when we went on vacations together.

To put this into context: I grew up speaking a language that only around 5 million people speak.  That does not make for a huge market in neither hardcover nor paperback novels and, consequently, books in Danish were/are prohibitively expensive – three to four times the price of a similar book on Amazon.  If Danish books weren’t so expensive, we wouldn’t have read all these paperback novels in English in the first place.

Now, let me get back to telling you the story with my friend.

Because we read so many books in English, odd sayings started to creep into our Danish.  She told me about some shenanigans she wouldn’t put it past her brother to have instigated – and we both cracked up because the term “putting it past him” doesn’t exist in Danish.  She had translated this verbatim, and it made absolutely zero sense.

I think this was the first time I consciously recognized that some words or terms could not be translated and be understood the same way as in the original language.  (And this is a very different “oops” from just using the wrong word when you speak a foreign language.)

Have you noticed that we are already dealing with two levels of translation confusion now?

The simple layer is that perhaps you now wonder what the Danes say when they want to convey “I wouldn’t put it past him”?

The next layer is that to set the scene, I had to tell you much more about the Danish book business that you would ever want to know.

Over the years, I have helped translate many Danish texts, and an important part of a translation is to add a context that allows the foreign reader to make sense of what is in the primary message.  You can’t for example refer to a company and expect readers abroad to know anything about the company – not even one that is known by everybody back home.

One doesn’t have to be Danish to wrongly infer that some things need no explanation. Reading Harry Potter makes so much more sense if you know just a little about the English school system.  And, actually, that goes not just for the school system but for any social “system”: government, retirement, medical, telephones, elections, juridical… We are generally only aware of our own country’s ways of organizing itself.  (I recently watched the movie “A Man Called Otto” and yes, the plot differs from the original Swedish story because Sweden and USA don’t organize their medical care in the same way.)

It is not just our locally known companies, heroes, and public services that need introduction when we translate.  When you are translating into English aimed at the US audience, numbers also need to be adjusted.  What looks like a social emergency or miracle because something happened to 5,000 Danes becomes a rounding error put into an American context. Such numbers need to be normalized – how many people per 100,000 population translates much better than absolute figures whether your frame of reference is much bigger or much smaller than mine. (Actually, this happens as well when somebody compares between states within the US.)

With idioms and metaphors, all bets are off.  We may even unwittingly “step in it” big time – to use a metaphor that in my childhood Danish was “stepping in the spinach”.  (Don’t ask me why spinach.)  Americans fill their language with references to sport: “Out of the ballpark”, “Home run”, “Slam dunk”.  If you don’t play baseball or basketball, this may mean nothing.  In French it is cooking terms and food references that show up everywhere.  “I feel like a chicken in a pie.”  Say what!?

All languages use references to literature (“the emperor has no clothes”, “Catch 22”), movies, history, or Holy Scripture.  I learned that Chinese “play piano to a cow” when they “throw pearls before swine” – would that stop you in your tracks, reading a novel where they play piano for their cows?  (Not that the pigs makes a whole lot of sense, either.)  The www is full of strange sayings translated verbatim.  I read and laugh that anybody would say something this funny  – and then discover that it is just the Dutch words for the totally same old saying we have in Danish.  (Refound in translation, perhaps?)

At the beginning of this piece, I wrote “Houston, we have a problem.”  Did you pause to wonder where that came from?  If not, do you think it may confuse people with non-American background, or perhaps people younger than you?

In Denmark, being naïve is sometimes phrased as “being blue-eyed” because most babies are born with blue eyes. “I may have blue eyes, but they are not that blue.”  It doesn’t translate well into the multiethnic American society, where referring to blue eyes is known as “a dog whistle”.  Does everybody outside the USA understand the same if using the term “dog whistle” as do Americans? (Fortunately, not my blunder.)

We are not always aware of how much we use idioms that can be hard to translate because they rely on culture and country-specific references.  But they will often be lost in translation (and when they are not, trust me, they are a real nuisance to translate.)

I referred to international research above, and questionnaires require not one, but several translators involved translating back and forth.  A classic joke illustrating this is translating Matthew 26.41 “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” The reverse translation: “The drinks indeed is strong, but the steak is bad.”  I recognize that this may be funny only to people familiar with Matthew and the traditions around his writing.  But we do want the reverse translation to get a little closer to the original text, please.

One of my translation projects was the Danish version of the Personal Value Questionnaire used in social surveys.  Dr. Schwartz and his colleagues set out to measure all the values they could think of to figure out which values were most prevalent where.  And they could think of quite a few.  But when they tried to agree on how to put all these values into questionnaires, they found that some of the values were important in some cultures but were totally unknown in other cultures.  How is that for “conceptual equivalence” if you have concepts that don’t even exist in the language you are translating into?  Lost in translation, squared.

When the team had sorted this out and questioned people all across the world, they did some fancy statistical analyses and found that some values grouped together one way in some countries but very differently in other countries.  Thus, a value can be important to both you and your counterpart, and you would translate it with words you both understand, but you could still mean something different.  That is one of the worst situations in international communication: you think you agree, but you speak about two different things.

While I can’t tell you which values may suffer from this unfortunate complexity – they were excluded from the questionnaire – I can tell you that when you table a point on your agenda, the Americans draw a sigh of relief and lean back in their chairs while the Brits roll up their sleeves, getting ready to dig in.  And that confusion doesn’t even require anybody translating.

Welcome to my life…


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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