You can’t get there from here

You can’t get there from here

Just how far from the original?

I recently worked on the translation of a website for a start-up consultancy firm from the fashion industry. It wasn’t an easy translation and I was glad that I’d managed to negotiate a good enough rate to have my work revised by a colleague. She made quite a few changes, most of them for the better, but afterwards she made some very telling comments. “The problem was the original,” she said. “It didn’t read like a website.”

It reminded me of the old joke about a foreign tourist stopping to ask a farmworker for directions in a small village in the middle of Ireland. “Where are you going?” asks the farmworker. The tourist tells him and the man scratches his head. “Oh, in that case I wouldn’t start from here if I were you…”


Because as a translator you are in the same position as the unfortunate tourist if the original simply doesn’t say what you think the finished version in your language ought to: you’re starting from somewhere that makes it very difficult to reach your destination.  Now, I’m all for creative translation and for getting away as far as possible from the source text when the circumstances require. But are we really entitled to tell the client: “Give me a new original because your copy doesn’t read like a website.” And what should a website read like anyway?

Shortly after this happened, I was able to find out the answer to precisely that question, when attending a free webinar by Sarah Richards on how to write user-focused content for the web. Her approach could not be faulted. If you want to write content that’s really useful and that truly involves users, you need to know their stories. The starting point for this is research, and when you’ve found out about your users, who they are, and what they want to know, you write their stories, always in the same format: “As a [whatever they are], I want to [whatever they want to do] in order to [their aim].” Those stories will tell you clearly  not only who you’re writing for, but also the information you ought to be including and making most prominent on your website. The result is content that users are bound to find interesting and useful and the antidote to all those websites we know and hate where hunting out what we really want to know is a kind of challenge.

The benefits of the approach are clear, and it’s obviously a method to aim for when starting from scratch. But what if your translation client simply hasn’t heard of it? What if your client chooses to do things differently and to include different types of material? Is it our job to tell them “I wouldn’t start from here if I were you”? As translators, I can’t honestly say it is. After all, surely a client has the right to decide what they want to include in their own website and what they want to leave out. And once they’ve decided, it’s surely our job to translate it, whether we like it or not.


Things would be different, of course, if we were hired as language consultants or if – and this is a service I’ve been considering offering in association with colleagues – we were hired to write all the copy for a website in multiple languages. In this case, the copywriters in the different languages could work together to develop the content and there wouldn’t even be any need for one language necessarily to follow the same pattern as another.

But this situation is very different from a translator who is given a text and told: “This is what I want to say. What would it be in your language?” It’s a limitation, if you like, but when asked such a question I feel obliged to give an answer to the best of my ability. I’m not being paid to question what the client actually wants to say.




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