Monday, July 14, 2014

The difficulty of translation and localization

Most people who have never tried translating text from one language to another think that it's a rather trivial thing to do. They are very wrong. Having translated some things between English and Finnish I have really gained an appreciation for the difficulty that this entails.

Translating, especially when we are talking about things like TV shows, is also a very thankless job. For example people who translate anime from Japanese to English sometimes get a lot of flack because they are "butchering" the work by needlessly localizing things rather than being faithful to the original. But the thing is, it's not always that simple.

Some time ago I was thinking about adding English subtitles to a comedy sketch video by Spede Pasanen ("seteliautomaatti"). What I thought would be an easy job resulted to be more difficult than what I imagined. Take for instance this exchange:

"No, mihis the meinaatte mennä?"
"No, kun sattu tää solmiokin, niin aateltiin Mallasaltaaseen poiketa."
"No hyvä on, menkää nyt sitten, mutta vaan pari olutta ja pyttipannu. Siihen menee kuule vajaa satanen."

This translates roughly to:

"So, where are you going?"
"Well, since I have this tie and all, we are thinking of going to [Mallasallas]."
"Ok then, go there, but only two beers and a [pyttipannu]. That's less than a hundred (Finnish marks)."

Even this short exchange has a couple of problematic words to translate.

"Mallasallas", deducing from the context, is ostensibly the name of a higher class beverage establishment, like a bar or pub (I don't know if it's real or fictitious in this sketch, but that doesn't really matter). Its literal translation would be something like "Malt Pool" or "Malt Tank", but since it's the proper name of an establishment, it's questionable to translate it literally.

So how should this be translated? If this were a formal translation, it would be left untranslated (with possibly a footnote explaining what it is), but this is subtitles for a comedy sketch video, not a legal document. The actual name of the establishment is completely inconsequential to the humor; the important thing in the translation would be to simply convey that this is some kind of bar or pub. But how?

One possible solution would be to try to localize the name instead of just translating it. This means using a name that's recognized in the target audience as a high-class bar or pub. But what would that kind of name be? Also, it would still be too narrow because it's very possible that only people from some countries would recognize it. Another possible solution is to simply use some arbitrary name and hope that the viewer understands that it's referring to some kind of establishment.

"Pyttipannu" is even more difficult. It's a dish traditional to the Nordic Countries with no accurate or common translation to English. Wikipedia describes it as "a hodgepodge of food similar to bubble and squeak." How exactly do you translate this?

Again, the precise food is not important for the humor. This is simply a dish that's common in Finnish pubs, which is actually what should be conveyed in the translation. An accurate translation would not convey this at all. While teaching the viewer about this tidbit of Finnish culture might be informative, it's not the point of the translation.

A better translation would be some dish that's common in pubs everywhere, or at the very least is understood by the viewer as such. But what? Different countries and cultures have their own popular pub dishes. It's impossible to translate this in a general way.

Fansubs (eg. of anime) often use "footnotes" to explain more complex terms, and this could be used here (ie. simply leave the word untranslated and add something like "a dish common in Finnish pubs" as a footnote somewhere on the screen). However, while this is common in fansubs (and could indeed be done here), it's not the norm in more "professional" subs.

Also, what if we were translating this for a dub instead of subtitles? No footnotes possible there...

When one actually tries to translate text from one language to another, one really gains appreciation for the difficult job that professional translators have to go through, and how thankless and unappreciated said job is.


  1. Before I comment on the issues you raise, I would like to know what is your mother tongue. .

    1. Finnish. I assumed it was implied by the fact that the video I considered translating is in Finnish...