Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Master and Margarita, Or Why Businesses Don’t Have To Translate Everything

I’m a big fan of Matthew Inman’s The Oatmeal. It isn’t often that a cartoon makes me laugh out loud. The thing is that although Inman is a visual artist, his humor is less visual than one would expect and much more dependent on his writing, which is hilarious.

One example: a strip entitled “If you do this in an email, I hate you,” treats a situation that will be familiar to many translators. Jim Jimmers sends an email to four people and the subject line reads “Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Mission Statement edit” (the attachment is the entirely plausible “missionstatement3_latest_newer_withJimschanges_2304.doc”). Jimmer’s message to his collaborators is: “Okay. I changed all instances of ‘very’ to ‘AMAZINGLY’ and added a clause about how incredible we are at pretty much everything.

Inman’s translation below reads: “Welcome to our nightmare File… save as’ BWAHAHAHA HORHORHORR. You will cry tears of blood from our collaborative editing clusterf--k.”

It appears that Inman recently translated some of his stuff into Japanese. That prompted one irate Spanish-speaking reader called Margarita to write the following (the entire exchange is reproduced in an ongoing series that is appropriately entitled Retarded Emails):

Nice, you translate your comics in Japanese but not in Spanish. You’re a douche. Maybe you don’t get many Spanish viewers, but that’s ‘cause THEY DON’T SPEAK ENGLISH! Don’t you realize your fellow Latin-Americans like this type of humor?? Maybe not. Do your research.
I seriously think you should translate this shit in Spanish.

Now, there are many things one could say about this type of message, and Inman proceeds to throw a few choice words back at his reader. What I would like to highlight as indicative of current attitudes toward translation is twofold: 1) the assumption that the selection of one language over another is exclusionist and 2) the uncritical belief that translation of a cultural artifact into every single language is feasible or even economical (after all, Inman is pretty much just a very successful freelancer, as far as I can gather).

Suffice it to say that in the mind of uninformed people such as Margarita, the river of relativistic political correctness has clashed head on with the stream of (superficial, millennialist, dangerously naïve…) assumptions that scarcity (which forces us to make choices in the allocation of resources) is a thing of the past. The result is an onrushing flood of idiocy of which she is only a tiny molecule.

Of course, Inman’s reply is much more colorful:

I also didn’t translate my comics into French, German, Portuguese, Swahili, Ethiopian, or into that grunting / dry-heaving language that orangutans at my local zoo speak to each other. Do I have to translate into all these languages to be a non-douche? Please advise. The orangutans are waiting.

kabir via everystockphoto.
In a world dominated by instant gratification, I guess it's normal to view any text in a single language as what Lacanians call a “lack.” Worse yet, superficial political correctness will tend to view the selection of one language over another as exclusionist. Moore’s Law and baby steps in automatic translation away from the half century of RbMT stumbles have fed the illusion that instant translation into every language is an arm’s length away.

Margaritas abound, unfortunately. But if you’re going to “localize,” either do it well or don’t do it at all. Above all, don’t settle for a middle-of-the-road compromise such as McLocalization. And if you get some heat from the Margaritas of this world, I suggest that you print out The Oatmeal’s answer and frame it for future reference.

Remember, the orangutans will always be waiting.

Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center and H.B.O. International, as well as many small-and-medium-sized brokerages and asset management companies operating in SpainTo contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. Feel free to join his LinkedIn network or to follow him on Twitter.


Nicovercesi said...

Great comment on that event. I enjoy TheOatmeal a lot, too.

Although I agree with your insight, I do think it would great to give it a chance on translating some of his articles into Spanish, don't you think?

As soon as I saw the Retarded e-mail post I sent Matthew an e-mail offering myself as a contributor for Sp. translations.

At least, I'm sure it would fun trying to translate his content...

Financial Translator said...

I don't know if The Oatmeal's humor translates too well. Besides, it kind of misses the point I was trying to make, but good luck. He obviously reads his fan mail. Worth a try, I guess.

Nicovercesi said...

Again, I agree with you, but in this case I thought of it more as a pleasure for the translator, considering it might be hard to translate.

Thanks for the reply!