Crimes of Translation

I love creativity but there is one area where creativity is really, really bad: In translations!

Please, don’t be creative when translating movies and books!

What is it with some translators? You have a brilliant movie or book that is in English, but when it falls into the hand of some English-to-German translators it is doomed.

The latest example is “Nation” by Terry Pratchett. I’m not talking about the book itself, I wouldn’t open a translated version of that book, but the title itself (don’t get me started on the cover illustration!). The German translation chosen by the translators was “Eine Insel: Roman“. If you translate it back into English (literally) it would be: “An Island: Novel”. What would be a literal translation of the original English title? Simple: “Nation” translates into German as … “Nation”. Yup. But apparently that wasn’t creative enough for the translators so they had to choose a different title. Personally, I’m sick of it. I’m getting the impression that there are a lot of failed writers and creatives in the translation-business. Unable to create good works of their own they try to add their own personal creativity to the works they translate — and they fail! Miserably. It’s like flinging mud at a Rembrandt! And hitting it! And claiming it is art — too! And that it improved the work!

It’s no wonder that Guillermo del Toro, the director of such wonderful movies like “Pan’s Labyrinth”, translates and writes the subtitles on his own, if he can (according to IMDB, he writes the English subtitles). And at least for the English-to-German translation there are countless examples where the translation just sucks!

Here is a short collection:

English Title German Translation Literal English Translation of the German Translation
“Maus” by Art Spiegelman
“My Father Bleeds History” “Mein Vater kotzt Geschichte aus” My father vomits history
Pirates of the Carribean
“Pirates of the Carribean” “Fluch der Karibik Curse of the Carribean
“I will see to it that every pirate gets what he deserves: A short drop and a sudden stop.” “Ich werde dafür sorgen, dass jeder Pirat bekommt, was er verdient: schockschwere Not, den schnellen Tod.” “I will see to it that every pirate gets what he deserves: my goodness, the fast death.” [“schockschwere Not” is something that would be said by … unmanly persons, not something an English captain would say.]
Hoodwinked
“Hoodwinked” “Die Rotkäppchen-Verschwörung The Red Riding Hood Conspiracy
“They call me Red Riding Hood because of the red hood I’m wearing.” “What about when you’re not wearing it?” “I usually wear it.” [sarcastic] “Sie nennen mich Rotkäppchen wegen der roten Kappe, die ich trage.” “Was wenn du sie nicht trägst?” “Das kommt nicht vor.” [factual] “They call me Red Riding Hood because of the red hood I’m wearing.” “What about when you’re not wearing it?” “This does not happen.” [the tone lacks the irony of the English when translated into German]
Other Book/Movie Titles
“Night Falls Fast – understanding suicide” “Wenn es dunkel wird: zum Verständnis des Selbstmordes” “When it gets dark: About the comprehension of suicide” [the title is on an artificially high language level]
“An unquiet mind: [a memoir of moods and madness]” “Meine ruhelose Seele: die Geschichte einer Depression” “My restless soul: the history of a depression”
“Ghost in the Shell” “Der Geist in der Muschel” “Ghost in the clam” [Shell is here translated as the animal shell, not as “shell” per se]
“Last Lecture” “Last Lecture – Die Lehren meines Lebens” “Last Lecture – The lessons of my life” [left the title untranslated and — my personal favorite — added a subtitle. Problem: “Lehren” is the high level variant of teachings and to downbeat for the work itself]
“The One Minute Manager” “Der Minuten Manager” The Manager of Minutes [while the original title means managing in one minute the German translation means managing minutes, e.g., hints at time management]
“Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” “Gerechtigkeit: Wie wir das Richtige tun” ARRRGH, so bad it lead to an update of this posting. The English title asks “What’s the right thing to do?”, meaning it’s unclear what the right thing to do is or whether there is a clear answer in the first place. The German Translation states “How we do the right thing” (assertion). It implies that we either do or can do the right thing, which conflicts totally with Sandel’s lecture style and with the philosophical discussion he is trying to do.

So, please, if your job is to translate works, do not try to add your own creativity! Especially not in the form of an additional subtitle! You have a specific job: To translate the work so that the unique style and humor of the author can be understood in the target language. This means you have to read it — and understand it! Do not add your own mixture — it will not work. If you cannot publish your own creative works, that’s hard, I know, believe me, but raping the creative works of other writers will not make your work better! Be the invisible hand! If you translate a work and no one notices that it was translated and not originally written in that language then you did a great job!

Note: If I have insulted some translators, then please, write me a comment. How do you explain these crimes of translation if not by the failed attempt to add personal creativity?

Note 2: Yes, I know, I write in broken English. I’m a scientist and a hobby writer — not a translator or native speaker.

Note 3: I just read that the translator of “Nation” distanced himself from his work. According to an open letter (in German) the mistakes were due to an editor who tried to distinguish herself (unfortunately, she did, very, very negatively). Is this the general case? Translators delivering good work and editors adding their personal touch (with very, very dirty fingers)? If so, I apologize to the translators (although I would see the editors in this case as the translators). Leave me a comment …

Categories: General Tips, Improving your Creativity


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