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How do you translate an idea?

March, 2005. The BBC has just finished broadcasting the first episode of the rebooted “Doctor Who”. At the end of the episode, the title character turns to his new companion, Rose, who threatens not to accompany him on his travels around the universe.

“You go home,” he says, “and enjoy your lovely beans on toast.”

The line played well in the UK, beans on toast being a shorthand, universal symbol of hum-drum, ordinariness.

Except in Germany.

In Germany the translation came out, roughly, as “You go home and put some bread under the grill, then heat up some haricot beans and stew them in a sauce made of sweetened tomatoes.”

They don’t have baked beans in Germany.

So at the climax of this pilot for what the BBC hoped would be a worldwide science fiction success, at least one country found itself watching what appeared to be a bit of a cookery lesson.

Funnily enough, the series didn’t really take off in Germany.

The ground rules of translation

There are a number of issues at play here, and multilingual journalist and translator Brian Melican has come across many of them.

It’s worth establishing a couple of ground rules in the ‘human’ translation game before moving on:

First, translation is written, interpreting is spoken (often simultaneously).

Second, there are a couple of key academic concepts to understand — one is “domesticization” in which a concept is brought completely into the local sphere, and the other is “foreignization”, explains Melican, in which the translated text retains its foreign roots.

Before you get as far as that, though, there’s probably a more mundane issue. “In this case you’ve probably got a speech-to-text issue as well,” he says. Everybody who has switched subtitling on whilst watching television will have seen random errors introduced simply because of the speed at which people have to type.

“You can probably get around some of that by adding a parenthesis, but while you’re subtitling you can work on that. If it’s dubbed, then it has to fit speech patterns too, which makes the whole thing a bit more complicated.”

In the BBC example, the notion of domesticization v. foreignization (or is that “domesticisation v. foreignisation”?) was key; a German viewer would have reacted better, perhaps, to the good Doctor telling his companion to go and enjoy a plate of currywurst — except in that instance you come up against another barrier.

Part of the appeal of any programme from the BBC would be that the programme is intrinsically British. Take that foreign appeal away and do you end up diluting the thing so it’s barely worth switching on?

Local flavours

Melican sees this that makes the point that the show didn’t fly in Germany so if this was the idea, it backfired – although other shows, such as Midsomer Murders (known in Germany as Inspector Barnaby) did extremely well for a decade or so (presumably until the Barnaby character left).

“It’s not challengingly British, it’s easy to relate, and you could argue that Doctor Who was one step further in with more cultural references, so it was more than a translation issue.” The other potential issue is that people sufficiently interested in British culture to follow it might be watching in the original English anyway.

Alexander Drechsel, interpreter and podcaster, concurs that changing a language is a complex area and takes more than words. Ascertaining the intentions of the speaker is as important as understanding the words they are speaking.

“The very first step, which is obvious, is that you have to know the foreign language very well but you have to go beyond that. If I’m interpreting from English I have to know a bit about cricket and other reference points like that; the other bit that sometimes falls by the wayside is that you have to know your mother tongue extremely well.”

This can be a problem for many aspiring interpreters, he says, who have an excellent command of their target language but are not quite able to render meanings in their own language.

Meaning and intent

Ascertaining the meaning and intention of the speaker takes the interpreter into other realms, such as irony and cynical remarks, he comments. A lot of it is about empathy rather than a technical communication skill.

“I don’t know whether you can really learn that,” he says. “You have to spend some time in the country [whose language you’re going to translate from], just really learning how they live their lives and how they communicate on an everyday basis. There’s no textbook for that, it’s a language skill but it’s also a people skill.”

In terms of businesses using some sort of service or even feeding into an automated translation system of some sort, a lot of information has to be contained in the brief. This will ideally include whether the client wants localization or foreignization, but even then it may be open to (pardon the pun) interpretation.

Melican points to one client, a high profile online company whose business involved printing matter. It’s important to understand that Germany has an affection for precision when it comes to formality — indeed the “A4” paper size originated there. It was therefore no surprise that this business had precise detail on how to lay out letters for particular instances and occasions in Germany; Melican’s brief was to translate the whole website.

“I told them, of course I can say what it all means in English, but why would you want me to?” There was no reason to expect British people to be at all interested in the precision German formats so that part of the brief was quietly dropped.

Tech tact

This leaves the artificial intelligence that’s coming in and helping with translations at a bit of a loss at the moment. It’s undoubtedly useful in its place; Drechsel is the first to confirm and indeed welcome the idea that someone can walk into a restaurant, hold their phone or tablet over a menu and see what’s on offer in their language on the screen, and get spoken translations as well. On a basic level they work.

“There are several devices now where people have tried to make an automatic translator for when you go on holiday,” he says. “However, there can be a big gap between the marketing and the reality. Often they fall short; they often work only work with English and Italian or Chinese, or one of the more common languages. Once you get to Maltese or one of the more obscure African languages that are not well covered, it doesn’t work.”

There are technical issues as well; when travelling, someone might not have the Internet connection that will exploit the device’s ability. Some of them only allow five seconds before starting to translate so only the most basic sentences will work.

More importantly and a longer-term issue is the ability to take a brief. In Melican’s example, the print company asking for a direct translation would most likely have found the AI only too pleased to translate word for word without contextualising the content and realising that the information on German paper was going to be poorly targeted at a British market.

“They will get better in future of course, but for the moment anyone saying these machines will replace interpreters in the near future is talking bollocks , to be honest,” says Drechsel.

“The whole idea of context and body language is important in understanding people, and a device that works only on audio will work for ‘where’s the nearest station’ or strictly factual exchanges but for a proper conversation you need to be properly multi-channel.”

More than words

Even when doing simultaneous translation in a booth, as is the typical image of the interpreter at international level, he prefers to be able to see the speaker on a webcam to pick up on the nuances.

And of course there are the cultural markers, the elements that make a conversation British, German, American, Armenian or from any other culture. Judging how much of the character to retain or jettison for comprehension balanced against authenticity is, for the moment, a task best left to humans.

Alas, in the case of the foreignized/foreignised Doctor Who, in a bid to retain its British roots, the broadcasters’ efforts misfired. No British person would recognise the description of how to cook baked beans from scratch and it’s reasonable to speculate that no German would want to know, particularly in the context of an adventure show. You can see why someone tried, though.

Doing otherwise just wouldn’t be cricket.