Lost in Translation

July 17, 2019

Because our project involves five organisations from four countries (where six official languages are spoken!), putting together the translations was no easy task. Obviously, we had to turn to a translating company. Our initial idea was to translate each lesson plan from our native languages into English. Then we planned to go over them, make sure they had turned out as we had intended, and then have them translated again, into each of our native languages.

Translating, however, is no easy math — and 1 + 1 does not always equal 2!

For instance: Czech and Slovak used to be spoken in one country, and both languages are still widely understood even after Czechoslovakia split up. So we just decided not to translate the Czech lesson plan into Slovak and vice versa. Still, both had to be translated into Bulgarian and Bosnian… and Serbian and Croatian as well? Indeed, there are three official languages in Bosnia and Herzegovina. But the case is similar to Czech and Slovak, so we eventually translated the lesson plans only into Bosnian, as the Serbian and Croatian speakers would still understand.

Clearly, even choosing the languages to translate into and out of can turn into a puzzle. I can only imagine what it must be like to pilot Swiss lesson plans in Canada, what with each country’s multiple official languages!

Anyway, choosing the languages was only the preparatory task. It is only during translation when you fully realize how difficult it is to mediate the experience of your own country’s history for an international audience. It begins with the details – you cannot, for example, just write down names such as Shumen or Belene without noting that the former is a city, while the latter was a working camp (both in Bulgaria). And while all Bulgarian students will without doubt recall the places, only few — or no — students in Central Europe (or the Americas) will recognize them.

Another difficulty emerges when you are translating well-known slogans or proverbs. In their original languages, they seem somewhat natural and domesticated, although they are often very artificial or figurative. But uprooted into another language, they can very quickly change their meanings, and what at first seemed easy to grasp suddenly appears to be quite a tricky task to translate, and leaving them without additional commentary would just cause confusion. But when you start adding notes and comments, the lesson loses its wit and soon becomes tedious; to offer just one exemple, when you say “zářné zítřky” in Czech, everyone recognizes it as a now-discredited collocation from the state-socialist era. But the English translation, a “radiant future,” can bring to mind just about anything, from a cheap sci-fi to a nuclear disaster …