From signage outside an ATM in Venice, printed in large capital letters …
A DISPOSIZIONE ULTERIORE BANCOMAT GIRATO L’ANGOLO A 50 MT.
which was then helpfully translated for English-speaking tourists …
TO DISPOSITION OTHER AUTOMATIC TELLER TURNED THE ANGLE TO 50 MT.
On the bike path adjacent to the Naviglio Martesana just outside Milan, two signs, professionally designed and posted by the Province of Milan:
“Prestare attenzione alla caduta rami e alberi in caso di vento,”
which became, “In wind case lend attention to the coppers and trees fall.”
“E’ vietato abbandonare rifiuti,”
rendered as “Do non abandon garbage.”
Frequently, however, Traducese requires a more detailed exploration of two fundamental issues: the meaning and use of specific words and terms, particularly in the context of technical translations; and the more difficult question of what constitutes acceptable English.
English is a flexible language. In correct English, word order and syntax matter a great deal, but even mixed-up syntax can be understood. If we read a sentence such as “Sam the beans green him like eat,” we can still figure it out: Sam likes to eat green beans.
And yet the sentence is not English. More importantly, the sentence communicates another, more powerful message: the writer is either extremely careless or has extremely poor language skills.
Recently, an Italian consulting company began placing ads, in Italian, offering English-translation services for Italian business websites. “Communicating in English has become an indispensable marketing and promotional tool,” the company wrote. “Unfortunately, many websites and publicity materials create a bad impression, either because they do not include an English version or because the English is full of errors in grammar and syntax.” The advertiser offered “thirteen years of study in the United States, a master’s degree, and six years of experience in the tourism and export sectors,” as well as “speed and low prices.”
High quality did not appear among the promises—and there was a good reason for that. Consider the following phrases from the advertiser’s own website:
“We currently specialize in obtaining partnerships with Italian food companies and representing their products throughout North America and the rest of the world…. Our goal is to create synergies and partnerships between different companies so that each company that contacts us, wether it be on one side or the other of the Atlantic Ocean, benefits and profits from doing business through us…. We have the possibility of comunicating fluently in Italian, English and Spanish and have many years experience in the food business…. Even though we specialize with Italian food products, our experience can help you find any food product wherever it might be throughout the world…. Are you looking to source food products from Italy but have language problems communicating with the suppliers?”
Just as in the sentence with Sam and the green beans, we can figure out the meaning. And yet this is not English. Not even after thirteen years. Moreover, the consultant’s very own website provides ample evidence that the advertisement’s glowing promises are false: The consultant criticizes websites that use English compromised by errors in grammar and syntax, but his own website is full of such errors—including the failure to proofread for typos (“comunicating,” “wether”).
Non-native English speakers who translate from Italian to English also rely very heavily on the internet—and they do so because they cannot fall back on native knowledge of English. Incorrect translations then appear in online glossaries such as those available via IATE and Proz.com’s Kudoz, where they are repeated and perpetuated ad infinitum.
In a recent exchange on one of the largest internet groups for translators who work with Italian and English, an Italian translator requested help with the term “sacchetto raccogli prodotto” for a passive-language translation into English. The context was the description of a vacuum cleaner. Another non-native-English-speaking Italian translator suggested the literal “product collection bag,” and this is the phrase the translator ultimately chose. Pointing out that a “sacchetto raccogli prodotto” is simply a “vacuum cleaner bag” in English was pointless. The translator was adamant about her choice, and that bad translation is now searchable for all time.
In another case, an Italian translator working passively from Italian into English sought the English translation of “non capovolgere,” a printed legend often seen, for example, on the sides of cartons of retail merchandise. Using a dictionary, another passive-language translator found that the verb “capovolgere” meant “to turn over” or “to turn upside down.” Thus he suggested: “Do not turn over.”
Only a native English speaker would know that the correct English translation of the identical concept in an identical context—a true translation, that is, and not simply the slavish substitution of English words for Italian ones—is: “This End Up.”