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March 17, 2010 5:39 PM   Subscribe

Translators! How do you handle proper nouns? Especially the obscure ones?

For what it's worth, I work Chinese->English.

They're probably the most time-consuming part of my job. I come on a technical term or a long string of grammar I don't know, ok, I'll google it and slowly get it, and then either figure out the word or find a way to describe it in English. But the occurrences of most proper nouns together with their translation, on the whole, is pretty rare, and I can't just make them up. More indirect methods of researching the organization or person or certification or place and finding a detail that coincides in English & the foreign language records also work, but that can, at worst, take days of research. Sometimes not even that works.

I've been translating a string of resumes lately, and bumping into this problem time and time again has been driving me up the wall. And my clients, god bless them, are mostly unresponsive to requests for help. So my question is, how do you deal with this? Do you charge extra for lists and resumes? Do you beg the clients to have their secretary make some phone calls? Do you (god forbid) have a waiver that states you're not responsible for errors in translations of proper nouns? Do you translate the names as best you can and tell the client to fact check?

Give me some guidance! I need a better policy on proper nouns than "I guess I just won't sleep tonight".
posted by saysthis to Work & Money (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm not trying to be coy or snarky, because I know you get a different quality of answer from metafilter, but if you haven't already checked this google search of your topic offers several interesting discussions. (Then again, maybe you've already looked! But just in case.)
posted by Solon and Thanks at 5:42 PM on March 17, 2010

It certainly does, and I've been having fun taking breaks looking at them. But not many deal with the way translators actually deal with this problem in their relationships with clients. I suppose I should have been more specific: How do you deal with proper nouns in regard to client demands?
posted by saysthis at 5:50 PM on March 17, 2010

You might have some luck looking stuff up on the Chinese Wikipedia, then, once you've found what you're looking for, switching over to the corresponding English article via the "languages" sidebar on the left.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:17 PM on March 17, 2010

Give the client a list and ask for official translations. Tell the client that if they can't provide translations, you'll do your best but can't fact check everything. When you deliver, give them another list showing the still-uncertain terms and the translations you used as a best guess.

This won't work in all cases (some clients might expect researching proper nouns to be included in your rate -- you'll have to decide how to deal with this idea same as you manage other expectations), but if you show good-faith efforts (e.g. looking up easy stuff like school names where possible on the internet) most clients will be okay with it. Clients who aren't, well, again, deal with that the same way you deal with other mismatched expectations.
posted by No-sword at 8:14 PM on March 17, 2010

The unhelpful answer is "it depends."

One of your roles here is to have some sense of what will be most useful for the target audience of your translation, and since your target audience varies from project to project, so to will your handling of proper nouns.

So, for example, in a legal contract, the proper name of corporations should not be translated in the first place. I work in language pairs that use the Latin alphabet, so I could be off base, but in your situation I think the appropriate thing would be to provide a transliteration, perhaps accompanied by a translation of the name of the company in brackets or a footnote--if this is valuable/helpful (it's rarely if ever wrong to provide additional information thusly, and sometimes helpful and appropriate).

With a resume, though, for things like the names of organizations or certifications the transliteration is not useful for the audience. If there's an official translation--one that is formally and consistently used by the organization--it shouldn't require days of research to track it down. The sorts of organizations that are likely to have such an official translation are those that often operate in English-speaking contexts: high-level government agencies, multinational corporations, globally operating NGOs, etc.

Quite often, however, there's no official or commonly accepted translation. So then what you wind up hunting for is just anything, anywhere that pairs up the Chinese name with an English equivalent, and really, all you've done is locate the work of some previous translator who had a need to grapple with the string of words. But that translator's take on it is no more "factual" than whatever common sense translation you might come up with yourself.

To sum up: in some cases, a proper noun should not be translated, though an explanatory note can be provided as an aid to the reader. In most cases, if there is an official translation, it shouldn't be hard to find. In the absence of an official translation, there is no One Right Translation, and you are welcome to follow the consensus of other translators if one exists, but you probably need to put a little more faith in your own powers to get it right.
posted by drlith at 8:16 PM on March 17, 2010

Also, keep in mind that not everything HAS an official translated name, not even "official" things like schools and government departments. Some might have multiple official names in use. So, indeed in some cases it might be fair to consider making up these proper noun translations part of your job. And of course in some cases they just won't care. As long as you keep the client appraised of what's going on, and make it easy for them to understand (and overrule if necessary) the choices you make, you should be fine.
posted by No-sword at 8:19 PM on March 17, 2010

(Oh, right, as drlith says there are times when transliteration, possibly with translation afterwards, is more appropriate than translation. I'm assuming that you already know how to recognize those cases and are talking about when you know you need an actual translation due to nature of document and audience.)
posted by No-sword at 8:30 PM on March 17, 2010

Short answer is I don't take that sort of work! Does your head in :p
Good longer answers are given above; here's a few more remarks. I aim for transparency, making it clear when I have an authoritative translation and when I'm guessing; whether this is significant will depend on nature and purpose of translation. Related is sufficient explication, adding the original or hanyu pinyin so there's little or no ambiguity and the end user is in a position to check themselves or substitute something preferred. Of course in many cases people don't want or can't use a text with Chinese characters, hence the pinyin, and you will have first correctly judged or enquired after the purpose of your text - if it's a short story that mentions a bank just come up with something that serves the purpose of the narrative rather than burdening a literary endeavour with academic apparatus. Also consistency - say it's a long text about policy in some backwater province and refers to various government agencies at different levels in the hierarchy; even if the general reader isn't particularly interested in such niceties it ought to be as clear in English as it is in Chinese that two agencies are both county-level departments under a national line ministry or their prefectural equivalents and so on.
posted by Abiezer at 1:53 AM on March 18, 2010

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