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 »  Articles Overview  »  Business of Translation and Interpreting  »  Shot Down in No Man's Language

Shot Down in No Man's Language

By Gary Smith | Published  08/6/2009 | Business of Translation and Interpreting | Recommendation:
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Gary Smith
hiszpański > angielski translator
Członek od: Dec 16, 2007.
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The customer is always right. Even when they’re completely wrong. We’ve all had them. The company boss who spent two weeks in Provence ten years ago and thus considers himself an expert in French. The British marketing department that doesn’t get why “the best thing since sliced bread” goes down in France like a lead balloon. The oil pipeline foreman who’s always called oil drums “bongos” and won’t hear of anything different. Here’s a summary of typical telephone conversations and possible solutions.


Client: “Hello. We’d like an exact translation of this unintelligible text. Thanks. Bye.”

10 minutes later:

-Translator: “Hello. Your source text stinks. How about if I re-write it first so that human beings like your customers can understand it?”

-Client: “We don’t have time for that. And anyway, our Stalinist MD wrote it personally and we’re too afraid to tell him he’s illiterate. Just translate it faithfully and send it on before 8 a.m tomorrow.”

Translator: “Ok. You’ve been warned.”

Client: “Thanks. Super. Great. Bye!”

10 minutes later:

-Translator: “Hello. According to my software, the last paragraph is not in any recognisable Indo-European language, or pre-Sanskrit. Perhaps it’s Arapaho?”

-Client: “Beep. Beep. Thank you for calling XXXXX. The office is now closed. Please call again when we open at 10 a.m.”

07:45 a.m:

Translator: “Hello. I’ve just sent you the faithfully translated crummy text.”

Client: “Beep. beep.”

10:10 a.m:

-Client: “Hello. Our customers say your text is crummy.”

-Translator: “Ha! Ha! I told you so! Did you get my bill?”

-Client: “Beep. Beep.”

10:30 a.m:

-Client: “Hello. We seem to have been cut off. I was saying that your translation is crummy. Why don’t you re-write the source text first?”

-Translator: “I’ll have to charge for that.”

-Client: (after a long pause) “We’ll have to discuss that with Josef, I mean José. Please send it fast. It’s urgent now.”

-Translator: “I’ll have to charge for that.”

-Client: “Beep. Beep.”

As it turns out, this translator had sent in various fake complaints from fake potential customers, rightly assuming the company would listen to customers if not to the translator on pointing out mistakes. It worked. Another example of how lowly the translator’s opinion can be rated.


This situation occurred on translating for a tour operator whose new brochure was about to go to press.

-Client: “We’ve got a problem. The winter holiday brochure says ‘Come to ski’.”

-Translator: “So?”

-Client: “Why doesn’t it say ‘Come to sky’?”

-Translator: “Because that’s the big blue thing with clouds in it.”

-Client: “Umm…ok, but I’ll have to check that. Doesn’t sound right to me. What about this word ‘the’?”

Etc. for about two hours until finally:

-Client: (grudgingly) “Well, ok, but I still don’t like your style. Maybe you should give us a discount.”

Depending on the power within the company of the person you’re dealing with, the end client’s opinion should see you through with this kind of problem. If they insist on changing “ski” for “sky”, simply make a point of the fact that they’ve been warned. And always ask to see the end product, as nine times out of ten they’ll have meddled with it with disastrous consequences.


Client: “Hello? Jones and Brothers Nuclear Cleaners Limited. Can I help you?”

Translator: “Hi. Your translator here. In your text I can’t seem to find any mention of the reactor cavity vessel nut housings.”

Client: “We call ‘em ‘Jimmies.’”

Translator: “Sorry?”

Client: “ ‘Jimmies.’ Since Fred’s dad, Jimmy, lost a finger in the warehouse trying to prise one off with his hand for a laugh. Ha! Ha! Ha!” (Starts coughing.)

Translator: “I see. But perhaps the international scientific community might prefer-”

Client: “ ‘Jimmies’ is fine. Been using ‘Jimmies’ for years. Just put ‘Jimmies’ in Spanish.”

Translator: “ ‘Jaimitos?’ “

Client: “What?”

This is what I call being shot down in No Man’s Language, the ultimate no-win situation when the clients stick to their guns. It’s a curious fact that over the 20th century the new vocabulary of American Spanish, French and English evolved along parallel lines, whereas their European counterparts went a different way, and this is obviously more notable in language for new inventions in an industrialised age where no word existed previously (cell phone, cellulaire, celular / mobile, móvil), though in the internet century this may no longer be so. In a technical/scientific text one should obviously give at least an official or descriptive name in the target language, but hell, if you’re translating new advertising language you could be the first to invent a new word. The last time I visited a gym, I discovered that “spinning”, “body-pump” and “footing” are all perfectly understood in Spanish, though their origins may be unknown to many Spanish speakers, and clearly no translator dared to (or was allowed to) venture a Spanish invention. And what language is this anyway? No Man’s Language. Somebody had to decide that Kermit the Frog would be Gustavo in Spanish, that Bert and Ernie would be Epi and Blas. That when Bart tells you to “eat my shorts” in Spanish he tells you to “multiply yourself by zero”, and as for breakfast cereal’s “snap, crackle, and pop,” I’ve no idea what the official translation is, but someone got there first. In an ever-changing society, languages are never static; new vocabulary is invented every day out of necessity (and sometimes out of ignorance of already-existing lexis). Be brave, venture where others fear to tread, and if you’re 100% sure that the word doesn’t yet exist, then it’s up to you to invent it, taking into account cultural/etymological issues where necessary.
No Man’s Language is the language that machine translation still cannot grasp, the metaphor, the irony, the cultural joke, the idea out of the blue, Deep Blue’s nightmare.
And that’s where we’re still winning the battle.

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