A cow falling over but not dying: Some unexpected translation & localization challenges

cowfallover

Translation and localization – that is, adapting text not only to a new language, but to the culture attached to it – aren’t easy. That’s why it’s usually best to hire a professional.  Still, even the best translators can run into problems when it comes to dealing with certain languages and cultures.

Take, for example, this fascinating article, which explains how coder Ibrahima Sarr had to adapt computer terminology to Fulah, a West African language spoken by about 25 million people. For cultural reasons, Fulah doesn’t lend itself well to technical terms, so Sarr cleverly used everyday vocabulary and experiences speakers could relate to.  For example, hookii, a word meaning “a cow falling over but not dying” replaced the term “crash”.

Of course, Fulah isn’t the only language that doesn’t have a built-in technology-related vocabulary.  A few months ago, I wrote here about how the Internet is helping Latin continue to thrive.  The Pope even has a Latin Twitter account!  But how does he/the people who tweet for him deal with Twitter’s terminology, let alone any other Internet-related vocabulary?  Like many other modern-day Latin fans and speakers, he uses old terms or combined words. Here’s an easy one, taken from the Vatican’s own Latin dictionary: navigare, for “browsing the internet”.

But it’s not just minority or “dead” languages that are a challenge when it comes to localization. In a troubling piece, Yehia A. Yassin reports that even Arabic, one of the most spoken languages in the world, is difficult to deal with when you’re talking technology. He cites factors like technology’s lack of importance in many Arabic-speaking cultures, a lack of trained Arabic translators, and an inherent incompatibility with English and other leading business and technology languages, as factors.  For Yassin, current technology- and business –related translations into Arabic are approximations.

Another challenge I’ve personally encountered is the attitude of speakers of a language regarding translation.  French is fascinating in this way: On the one hand, the way most French people speak in everyday life, as well as in the media, often includes countless English words.  But due to a sense of pride and a desire for the preservation of their language, many purists, including those of the Académie Française, the centuries-old committee that officially regulates French and decides what words go into the dictionary, usually ignore these English terms, no matter how efficient or widespread they may be.  And so, to use one of many examples, you’ll typically hear that someone is going to send you a mail or mél (“email”), but if they follow the Académie, that would be a courrier éléctronique (“electric mail”)  or courriel for short.

But localization and translation aren’t just complicated by vocabulary and cultural issues: there’s also how a language is written. For example, if an Anglophone company wants to expand into Israel, they’ll have to consider that Hebrew isn’t written left-to-right. This can mean serious layout changes need to be made to advertisements or even entire websites.

Ultimately, it all comes down to two important things: A client who’s planning on translating something should hopefully do some basic research so they’ll know what challenges they might expect.  And a translator should use not only their knowledge, but also, like Ibrahima Sarr, their creativity, to come up with solutions that will make a foreign text truly seem local.

By Alysa Salzberg

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