Boiled Dormice and the Art of Translation

The following “before and after” examples – all real-life mistakes – are intended to give you an insight into what can go wrong, and how we put it right. These translations were all from Italian into English.

A surprise too far

Italian (from the food and drink section of a brochure with the very apt title “Venice and its thousand surprises"):
 “I piatti da assaggiare sono … i folpeti lessai, moscardini bolliti...”

English translation (before revision): “The dishes to try are … folpeti lessai, little boiled dormice...”

Revised translation: “Delicious dishes you really must try are: folpeti lessai, lightly cooked little octopus...”

Comment: Some English-Italian dictionaries only give “dormouse” for moscardino. Which, however, can also mean “little octopus”. Indeed, moscardini are a delicious seafood dish found in restaurants the length and breadth of Italy. Here, the translator simply took the dictionary at face value - but translators need to use their brains as well as their dictionaries. When there’s any ambiguity in the source text, they should contact the client to discuss the problem. (In this case the translator was probably working for an agency and so had no direct contact with the client. But still…).

Megan who?

Italian (from an article for a men’s lifestyle magazine): “Viaggio da sogno – su uno yacht con solo l’equipaggio e Megan Gale per compagnia”

English translation (before revision): “Dream trip: on a yacht with just you, the crew and Megan Gale

Revised translation: “Dream trip: on a yacht with just you, the crew and Giselle Bündchen

Comment: Megan Gale is gorgeous. But outside of Italy and Australia, not many people know who she is. So the message has limited impact. With a little cultural adaptation – replacing Megan with super-model Giselle – the Dream Trip will resonate with red-blooded males the world over.

Democracy in pieces

Italian (from a speech by the President of the Republic): “È indispensabile una politica […] comune dell’Europa per difendere la pace e la democrazia nel mondo...”

English translation (before revision): “A common […] policy for Europe is indispensable for the defensive piece of democracy in the world...”

Revised translation: “A common […] policy for Europe is indispensable for the defence of peace and democracy in the world...”

Comment: The translator used voice recognition software – which is fine, as long as it’s used carefully. He dictated “for the defence of peace and democracy”, which the computer “heard” as “for the defensive piece of democracy...”. If the translator had printed out the draft and read it before delivery, he’d have picked up this mistake. But he didn’t. Moral of the story: Print and read before you deliver your final draft!

Paticular about speling

Italian (from a fashion house’s marketing literature): “È la somma di piccoli particolari che fa l’eleganza della persona”

English translation (before revision): “It’s the total of the little paticulars that make a person elegant”

Revised translation: The first step is to get the spelling right: “It’s the total of the little particulars that make a person elegant". But a better solution would be: “Elegance is in the detail”

Comment: We’re speechless (well, nearly). Translators, use your spell-checkers!

Elegance really is in the details.

Energetic policy-makers

Italian (from an energy policy paper): Sono previsti ulteriori aumenti dei prezzi energetici. 

English translation (before revision): Further increases of energetic prices are forecast.

Revised translation: Further energy price rises are expected.

Comment: In English, "energy" can be used as a noun but also as an adjective: energy regulation, energy policy, energy prices etc .The adjective "energetic" means "full of energy". Its Italian translation is "energico". So we would talk of energy prices but energetic people (who might consume energy drinks if they engage in energetic sports). Here, the translator just didn't think. 


By Marian Dougan