Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Warning: product may contain translation

I’ve been intensively reading the back of a packet of mixed nuts, as one does when an important deadline is looming, and feel compelled to share with you what a linguistic and cultural minefield such a simple thing can be.

They were bought in Germany, and have ingredients sections in French, Italian, German, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish. Oddly enough, a description of the product is given in English on the front, even though no English ingredients list is provided.

Whilst British people may think that EU bureaucrats are micro-managing all of these countries (with our plucky band of metric martyrs bravely defending their home islands), there are in fact significant differences between the sections.

The ingredients themselves, and the relative amounts thereof, are the same in each language, as is the best before date (although there are two different ways to express this idea, as “this will keep until at least [date]” and “it’s preferable to eat this before [date]”).

Italians and Germans are told that the snack was “produced in Germany”. Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish snackers learn that Germany is the “country of origin”. Only French consumers are blessed with a list of countries of origin (from the US, to Turkey, to Vietnam) and the knowledge that the mixture was put together in Germany. The Spanish, for some reason, are informed of the address of the company straight after the country of origin, even though it’s written at the bottom of the packet for everyone else.

There are differences in the consumer advice, too. Everyone is told how they should be stored; In Italy, Germany, Portugal and Spain they should be kept somewhere cool and dry, whereas more active care should be exercised by the French and Dutch, to “protect” the product “from heat and damp”. Only the Dutch are warned that small children can choke on nuts. Nowhere, in any language, is the infamous “product may contain nuts” advice given, although all consumers are advised that the picture of nuts in a bowl is only a serving / presentation suggestion / tip, in case they sue over the lack of sky-blue crockery.

Why have I decided to share this information with you?

Usually translators do much more than simply swap words for those of another language and tidy up the grammar a bit. If you were asked to add a section in English to this packet, which information would you include?

One approach could be to go right back to the root of the information, to the basic concept, independent of a specific language (in this case, a physical packet of nuts) and decide what the audience needs to know. Only then can you think about the structure, style and register of the target language so that the information is conveyed in a way that sounds natural to that audience. On the other hand, you could reflect the foreignness of the product by keeping some of the style of the source language. This second approach may be familiar from menus, even those written by English native speakers (e.g. “cutlets of lamb in a sauce of mint” instead of “lamb chops with mint sauce”).

If that’s what someone has to go through in order to translate a list of incontrovertible facts, you can see why translations of opinions and rhetoric should be approached with extreme caution.

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