The Complexity of Audio Translation
If translation service types were compared to the Olympics, then audio translation would be the biathlon— taking all the challenges that transcriptionists face and combining them with all the challenges that text-to-text translators face. And while you may be the world’s greatest cross-country skier, it matters very little if—when it’s time to hit the target—you just can’t shoot straight.
Audio translators must first be good listeners. The crutch of having a document in front of you—as text-to-text translators would have—is gone. There’s no ability to see exactly what is being said, no ability to grab an unknown phrase and simply throw it into an online translator for a little help. Just like transcriptionists, audio translators have got to listen again and again—and sometimes again—struggling to overcome accents, dropped words, poor grammar and syntax—or just plain old background noise. A translator at the side of a foreign diplomat might be able to ask for repetition or for clarification, but with a recording there is no such luxury.
Audio translators next have to put on their translator hat and find the appropriate meaning in the target language. The same difficulties that text-to-text translators face exist for audio translators. They must have a grasp not only of the language but of the cultural nuances of the country, so that their translation doesn’t give offense. They have to grapple with idioms that are senseless in the target language, or with words that have no equivalent in the target language, like “tartle.” (The Scottish term for the awkward moment of hesitation when introducing someone whose name you can’t remember.) And the audio translator must be cognizant of words that have multiple meanings that can lead to confusion… or worse. In 1945, upon receiving the Potsdam Declaration calling for cessation of hostilities, Japanese Prime Minister Suzuki responded with the word mokusatsu. According to his son, this was meant to be a “no comment” to the West—as in “let me think it over and get back to you.” Unfortunately, there was no English equivalent to this phrase. Mokusatsu was actually a little closer to “not worthy of comment,” and it was this that the audio translators of the day printed up in international newspapers. Interpreting this as continued defiance by Japan, the United States decided to drop the bomb.
Once the correct meaning is in hand, the final challenge is to convey the spirit of the original recording. This is the moment when the audio translator must wear both hats at once—translator and transcriptionist. The translator must not only create an accurate text in the target language—as a text-to-text translator one—but one that effectively captures the emotions of the speaker in the same way a transcriptionist would for a same-language recording by using his/her tools of punctuation. The poetry of the recording—the rhythm, the cadence, the emphasis—needs to be as evident on the page as it was on the recording, and as inspiring, uplifting, or sobering in the target language as it was in the source language. Sermons, sales pitches, business conference keynote speeches—they all need to jump off the page as if the listener were there, listening to someone speaking his own language, getting the message that was being presented that day. Again, drawing on a moment from history, consider the famous “We will bury you” speech from Nikita Khrushchev. Just as in the Suzuki example, the meaning of Khrushchev’s words wasn’t quite what was conveyed. “My vas pokhorim” did have a literal translation of “We will bury you,” but in the context of his speech about the merits of communism versus capitalism, it was closer to “We’ll be present at your funeral.” Or, “We’re going to outlast you, and when capitalism breathes its last breath, we’ll still be around to toss dirt on your grave.” Was it anti-communist sentiment (or sales-hungry publishers) that caused the audio translators to use a more explosive translation for the phrase? Something that would be far more provocative in the tense Cold War era? Or was it simply a case of an unbiased audio translator trying to capture the spirit of a speaker so demonstrative that he had been associated (correctly or incorrectly) with shoe-banging during speeches? Not every audio translation job is going to have to parse the difference between “We’re going to beat you” and “We’re going to kill you” and potentially push nations towards nuclear war, but lesser pitfalls can and do exist.
It’s Harder than It Looks… and Sounds!
If you’re still not convinced about why audio translation should be left to professionals, consider song lyrics. How many times have you been singing along to a favorite song for years before realizing (or being told) that you’ve been singing the wrong lyric all this time? Volkswagen ran a Passat ad poking fun at people who had misheard Elton John’s “Rocket Man” (“Burning out his fuse up here alone”) and Weird Al Yankovic lampooned Nirvana with his lyrics to “Smells Like Teen Spirt” (“It’s hard to bargle nawdle zouss with all these marbles in my mouth.”) If your subject on your audio recording mumbles as much as Kurt Cobain did, even a machine translator may do no better than “bargle nawdle zouss” most of the time. One of the most famous mondegreens in song lyrics is Creedence Clearwater Revival’s line, “There’s a bad moon on the rise.” First of all, a foreign audio translator creating a document using this lyric might do no better than many Americans, who have long misheard it as “There’s a bathroom on the right.” Strike one. Assuming, however, the translator listened closely a few times and got the actual lyric, he/she would probably be perplexed by the turn of phrase. There is no American idiom for “bad moon,” so he/she would have to first divine the correct meaning of “bad” from the dozen or so possibilities in the dictionary. Is it a poorly formed moon? A moon exhibiting poor behavior? Strike two. And finally, there’s no guarantee that even a correctly divined meaning will be conveyed effectively in the final translation. A translator that finds a comparable term of “going up” for “on the rise,” for example, has in essence substituted a more clinical term about movement in general for the more ominous phrasing suggesting a danger starting to grow. Strike three. Taking the power of the spoken word and creating equally powerful written words in a different language requires a dual skill set—transcription and translation. If you’ve got the chops to do both, then have at it. If not, then hang up the skis, rack the rifle, and look for someone who does!