Translation is not easy

It is very expensive to translate.

Being a translator is to a large extent similar to detective work. Words can contain different sorts of information in different languages. For instance, the English words his secretary contain information about the boss’s gender, but not the secretary’s. How is this to be translated to French, or vice versa, when the equivalent expression in French is son secrétaire, which means his or her male secretary? If the secretary is female, the expression sa secrétaire is used. But neither of these expressions gives any indication of the boss’s gender. In translating from English to French and a few other languages it is thus necessary for the translator to find out which sex the secretary belongs to. Sometime the name might provide a hint, but this is not always the case. Is the secretary Wu Wong a man or a woman? In translating to a number of languages, e.g. Spanish, French or Italian it is necessary to know the answer to that question to be able to translate correctly. In many cultures it is offensive to attribute the wrong gender to a person. This is an example of why it is so difficult to use computers as translators. As much as 50% of a translator’s time is spent sorting out difficulties of this or similar kinds. The sort of translation work that a computer can handle might add up to about 10% of a translators working-hours. A good translation requires a creativity and a flexibility that widely surpasses a computer’s capabilities. Why else would the EU and the UN need to have thousands of translators on their staff? I have read several translations that have been made by computers. They have all been terrible.

A Small Army

About 4000 people are employed by the EU as fulltime interpreters and translators. Beyond that there are a large number of translators and interpreters who work on a free-lance basis.

It has proven impossible to meet Sweden’s need for translators and interpreters. A fully extended EU will produce at least 120 000 pages of legal text every year. The available Swedish translators will perhaps be able to translate 30% of this.

The Ostrich; a role model

When the EU has been unable to find a sufficient number of translators and interpreters to meet the Swedish need, how will it be able to meet the corresponding needs of Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania? This is not only a practical question. It is also a question of democracy. The politicians in the EU know this but, like the ostrich, they bury their heads in the sand and refuse to see the problems. Since this is the case, the people in the different member countries have to act themselves and force through a solution. The populations of the member countries have a right to be able to follow what happens in the EU, without having to spend ten years of their lives learning English first. If people at large, and journalists, cannot understand and follow what is happening in the EU, negative feelings towards the union may arise. This has been the case in Sweden, where the EU has been blamed for much gone wrong.

© Hans Malv, 2004