The right clichés

The right clichés

Earlier this year I was asked to write an article for the Société Française de Traducteurs (French Translators’ Assocation) on sports translation, one of my specialist areas. This is my original English version of the piece translated into French by Lisa Amram and recently published in the association’s journal Traduire.

Matching readers’ expectations

I started writing about sport a long time before I began translating it. When I was 17 my father, who was the editor of a local weekly newspaper, asked me to go in to his office on Sunday afternoons to write reports on local football matches. I had to phone up the managers of the teams and write up their games based on what they told me.

Before my first Sunday, my dad gave me what might seem a strange piece of advice. He said: “Don’t be afraid of clichés. In sport, people expect clichés and you need to write about football in a way people are going to understand.” Of course, he didn’t mean clichés in the sense of dull writing or quoting some of the tired expressions trotted out by the coaches. What he meant was using the kind of language fans of the sport expect to read.

In that sense, I think his advice applies to any writing about sport, including translations. People who read about their favourite sport generally expect to find certain phrases and expressions and not others, and if we want to meet their expectations, it is our job as writers and translators to use the right language. Obviously that wouldn’t necessarily apply to a particularly fine piece of journalism or beautifully written novel with a sporting theme where particular language has been chosen. I’m talking about general sporting texts: reports, websites and so on.


So how do sports translators know the language to use? One way, of course, is simply knowing the sport. If you’re a fan, talking and reading about a particular sport all the time, you just know the expressions to describe particular aspects of it. My particular favourite sports are football, cricket and tennis and I’m quite at home writing and translating about these, although I have to say that no-one’s ever asked me for a cricket translation, it being a sport basically confined to the English-speaking world.

In an ideal world, we would, of course, confine ourselves to translating about the sports we know well. But in practice, as we begin to specialise, we’re often asked for translations about other sports as well, and here we need to be more careful. There are ways, however, of making sure our work still sounds convincing.

One of these ways is to use language corpora. These are collections of texts, all from the correct context, which can be searched for particular words and expressions, using concordancing software such as AntConc, developed by Laurence Anthony of Waseda University in Japan and downloadable free. This is a technique originally intended for academic use, but it works just as well for finding the expressions actually used in any specialist subject.

Where, though, can you find the language corpora you need? Various ones have been compiled and are available from different websites. However, if you want one on a particular subject – in our case a particular sport – the best thing is build it yourself. That is not as difficult as you might think. To do it, you need another gadget called WebBootCat, which can be found on the Internet with a suite of tools called Sketch Engine. It has to be paid for, although there is a free trial period. Essentially, what you do is feed WebBootCat with key words of the kind you would expect to find on websites talking about your sport. It will then scour the web for sites that include pairs of these keywords and download the text from them, compiling it into your very own corpus. This generally takes just a few minutes. You can either search your corpus online using Sketch Engine or download it to your computer and use AntConc.


Basically, what a corpus does is tell you whether the translation you have thought of is actually used on the kind of website that talks about your sport (or whatever subject you care to mention). You might, for instance, not be quite sure whether the sport is played on a pitch, a field, a track or a course, or you may be unsure whether the person keeping order during the game is called a referee, an umpire or an official. All you need to do is search for each of the words and see which appears most often. This is likely to be your best option. You can also search for collocations, which will help you find the right combinations of words.

A word of warning here: your searches will only be as successful as your corpus. Some translators spend a good deal of time compiling their own corpuses by hand and editing them to ensure that no unsuitable texts are included. Many of us, however, simply don’t have time for that, and for this reason we need to use our rough and ready WebBootCat corpora with care. Always check all the options you can think of rather than stopping when you find one that gets one or two hits. Look, too, at where your hits are coming from. If they are from translated websites or if the grammar is poor, be suspicious: they may not be giving you correct information and you might need to keep searching or check your ideas elsewhere. If, however, you get a solid string of hits, all in the right context, from websites that look reliable, you have probably found the right option.

I learned about corpora and WebBootCat through special workshops run by the MET (Mediterranean Editors and Translators) organisation. As I have said, the idea of using them was developed for academic purposes, but it adapts perfectly to the sporting context. I have used it successfully in texts about cycling and adventure sports, for example, two areas I knew very little about before embarking on my translations. Corpora don’t make you an overnight expert on something, but they can prevent you making a fool of yourself and help you give your translations the authentic touch (the clichés, if you like) that they need to be accepted by those really in the know. And, of course, they help you to learn, which is the only way you can become an expert on anything.

My blog is now taking a summer break. It will return with new posts at the beginning of September.

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