Anatomy of a translation
July 23, 2014

Non-translator muggles often ask how we language wizards modestly go about our day-to-day business. Alright, “often” might be pushing it; “occasionally, at dinner parties, to save a lull in the conversation” might be closer to the truth.

Please do explain how translation works, down to the smallest detail. Please.

Please do explain how translation works, down to the smallest detail. Please.

And so I thought I’d run through how I approach and attack a French-English text, using an actual translation I did last year for Le Soir, the Belgian daily newspaper. They’re a great client – they send me work that’s varied, interesting and culturally enlightening. The only drawback is that the deadlines are tighter than the proverbial duck’s bahookie.

So as to avoid this post growing legs and taking up way too much of my your time, I’ve picked a small excerpt from a football-related article that Private Eye would instantly categorise as a “puff piece”. It’s an interview with Belgium’s moody midfield maestro, Eden Hazard, published in French on 14th August 2013 (and in English – my English [yay, me!] – on 15th August), during which he muses on an upcoming pre-World Cup friendly match with France and comes out with a soundbite or two about Chelsea, his club.

A puff piece, Spanish Cow? Really?

A puff piece, Spanish Cow? Really?

The full French version of the 800-word interview can be found here, but I’m just going to concentrate on the first 140 words or so, including the title, subtitle and three further sub-subtitles in the form of bullet points, a habit peculiar to Le Soir. It’s an interesting wee passage, as it shows that even in the simplest, most trivial text, a translator has many an important decision to make.

And so here’s the original:

« Ni Chelsea ni la Belgique favoris »

ÉQUIPE NATIONALE Eden Hazard rejette la pression sur les adversaires

  • Face à la France, un pays qui l’a accueilli puis formé footballistiquement, Eden Hazard disputera un match particulier.
  • Son apprentissage de la méthode Mourinho à Chelsea se passe bien.
  • Il veut devenir plus efficace. Encore.

 Eden Hazard a encore les traits tirés. Visiblement, le Brainois n’a pas retrouvé une fraîcheur exemplaire après la tournée asiatique (il a été élu meilleur joueur de la saison passée par les supporters thaïlandais) et les nombreux décalages horaires subis avec Chelsea.

 « Je suis un peu fatigué, c’est vrai, mais pour une rencontre comme celle-là, je vais retrouver de l’énergie, s’amuse-t-il. Face à la France, il y a toujours une rivalité compte tenu de la proximité. C’est une sorte de derby. Et le coach nous a dit qu’un derby, cela se gagne. »

"I hold my hand up, I may occasionally utter clichés."

“I hold my hand up, I may occasionally utter clichés.”

If I’m feeling conscientious, the first step I normally take is to read the entire text and then start at the beginning. Both those actions would doubtless seem the most sensible approaches to most people, but if I’ve had a long day or am combating the evils of lethargy, I won’t read it through and will just get started, often just diving right into a paragraph that looks “easy”. Protestant work ethic, why hast thou forsaken me?

If I remember rightly, I did actually read this one and start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. So what have we got? There’s a headline which is drawn from the body of the interview (mental note: ensure wording of both are either the same or fairly similar) and the aforementioned sub-head (Great Mysteries of Life #1874: when did it become acceptable to drop the “ing” in “sub-heading”?). So let’s start there.

« Ni Chelsea ni la Belgique favoris », states EH, which literally translates as “Neither Chelsea nor Belgium are favourites”. With a headline, you normally have a fair bit of leeway, especially as French-language newspapers (in France, Belgium and Switzerland, at least) don’t often go down the same pun-prevalent path as the British press and can therefore come across as a bit dry in English. But here, as it’s a quote, and it doesn’t sound too bad, I embrace my literal side. I add in a wee clarification for non-football fans, drop the “u” from favourite, as this particular client (rather unusually in my experience, I should add) prefers American English, and voilà, we’ve got the first building block of our translation temple: Eden Hazard interview: “Neither Chelsea nor Belgium are favorites”.

French puns have a more accidental air about them.

French puns have a more accidental air about them.

Favo(u)rites for what, you may ask? Well, if this translation had been dumped on my lap because the client was desperate and/or I were struggling to make ends meets on the 30th of the month (and I was therefore more inclined to take on a job in an area with which I was less familiar), I might be forced to delve into the ‘why’ of that, but fortunately sport, and football in particular, is the domain in which I engage in the majority of my translation battles, so I know the answers already. He’s saying that Chelsea aren’t favourites to win the English Premier League, just like Belgium shouldn’t be viewed as favourites in their friendly match with France. And he was right: Chelsea didn’t end up as champions, and the friendly finished in a draw.

A good translator dons a variety of cloaks while earning his corn, including that of researcher, detective, adjudicator, editor, proofreader and temporary know-it all. A solid understanding of the language from which he or she is translating (known as the “source language” in the industry; the tongue into which you translate is referred to as the “target language”) is just the starting point.

Invisibility cloak: only needed if you've missed your deadline.

Invisibility cloak: only needed if you’ve missed your deadline.

What do I mean by temporary know-it-all? Ever been involved in a game of Trivial Pursuit with a translator? We’re in high demand. We’re the kid that gets picked first for the playground game of 5-a-side (ironic, given that in the real playground, we were often at the other end of the shortlist), because we have a rudimentary knowledge and understanding of a shitload of stuff, and that’s generally enough to win the cheeses, wedges or pie pieces (irritatingly, the translator will always be the one who starts up the “what do call this?” discussion). The emphasis should definitely be on ‘rudimentary’, though, hence the ‘temporary’. Like Johnny 5 in Short Circuit or Neo in The Matrix, we often become fleeting experts on subjects we were hitherto not all that familiar with, reading as much as we can in the time available in order to produce a translation that doesn’t read like it was created by a drunken sailor. And then, unlike Johnny and Neo, we forget 85 per cent of what we learned.

Une, hic, bière, garshhoan !

Une, hic, bière, garshhoan !

Back to the piece. For reasons too boring to go into here, this client never requires the sub-heading to appear in the translated articles, so I ignore it. The bullet points are, as French often appears to an English-speaker’s eye, a bit waffly, so I attempt to make them tighter and more Anglophone-y. I go with:

  • On Wednesday, Eden Hazard will lock horns with France, the country in which he rose to football prominence.
  • He has taken well to José Mourinho’s methods at Chelsea.
  • He is keen to improve his effectiveness.

“Lock horns” is a standard sporting cliché, but it’s not completely worn-out, so it’ll do. I add the day for a bit more context, and I extrapolate a bit on the “match particulier”, explaining to non-Belgian readers why it’s “particulier” (peculiar) for Hazard, who came through the ranks in France and is now facing that country’s national side in a friendly.

At this stage I re-read the first paragraph and discover Chelsea have been on an Asian tour – not a big surprise for a club that believes it’s a global brand, but not something I was aware of. And so I spend five minutes reading up – and yawning – about their fascinating adventures.

Watching paint dry and pre-season friendlies: completely unconnected.

Watching paint dry and pre-season friendlies: completely unconnected.

I mentioned earlier that you tend to get leeway with media headlines. With this particular client, there’s considerable leeway across the board. The last thing they’re looking for is a literal translation. What they want is a translation that gets across the gist of the original, of course, but that also reads like an article one might find in the sport section of an English-language newspaper. Edges can be smoothed, idioms can be converted or dropped altogether; readability and flow are encouraged, above all.

Sport-related translation is a pretty niche area; there aren’t that many of us out there with the required knowledge/geekiness and cultural baggage/years of miserably watching your team lose on a rainy Wednesday night in Falkirk. It often wanders into the domain of transcreation (or creative translation), another niche area. We’re dealing with niches within niches, in fact.

With that in mind, here’s my translation of the first two sentences:

Eden Hazard still has visible bags under his eyes. The La Louvière-born midfielder is clearly not at his freshest, following Chelsea’s Asian tour (he was named Player of the Year last season by the club’s Thailand-based supporters) and the jet lag that came with it.

To have “traits tirés” means to have gaunt, haggard or drawn features, usually due to fatigue. That all sounds a bit serious for a footballer suffering from a smidgeon of jet lag, so I start looking for an expression that would better fit the bill. I consider a literal route, i.e. that he’s just “tired” or “worn out” (or, after consulting my most invaluable resource, the trusty thesaurus, “fatigued”, “drained” or “spent”), but it’s only the pre-season, so that all seems a bit over-the-top. I try to envisage what I look like after an endless flight, and finally settle on the idea of bags under the eyes.


I add “visible”, as the opening sentence sounds a bit bare without it. It also works well here, as the source text already has the adverb “Visiblement” at the start of the second sentence (I say that now, but I’ll need to leap that hurdle in a second). French-English translators will sometimes find themselves adding an adjective here and there to enhance the imagery or clarify a detail, whereas in the original language it is often simply implied. What this says about the different cultures involved I will leave to those with more time (and better blogs) than me.

Now to that hurdle I mentioned. I can’t use “visibly”, as I’ve just written “visible” (well, I could, but it would be, to quote the Men in Blazers football podcast, “sub-optimal”), so I opt for “clearly”.

“Player/Footballer of the Year” tends to take capitals in English, even if it is just, in this instance, referring to an award from Chelsea’s Thailand-based supporters (possibly not a trophy Hazard will keep under lock and key in his retirement), and I decide to swap “brainois” – the demonym for people from Braine-le-Comte – for “La Louvière-born”, because he was actually born in the latter, although he played for the youth team in the former while growing up. To be honest, I could have used anything here that would avoid the repetition of ‘Hazard” and the clumsiness of “He”. “The creative midfielder”, “the Belgian dynamo”, “the former Lille playmaker” would all have been fine.

Braine-le-comte: A Walloon toon.

Braine-le-comte: A Walloon toon.

As an aside, Belgian towns always pose a minor translation problem in that it’s worth checking whether the Flemish (Mechelen rather than Malines; Leuven rather than Louvain) or French (Liége rather than Luik; Bruges rather than Brugge) name is used as standard in English. And then there are some cities where the English name is different from either version (Antwerp and Ghent, for example). Fortunately, La Louvière remains the same in French, Flemish and English. Phew. Or ouf, as they say in French. I don’t know how they say “phew” in Flemish, sorry.

Moving on. The end of the paragraph translates literally as “the numerous time differences he has experienced with Chelsea”, but what it’s really referring to is the effect on the players, so I go for “jet lag”. Interestingly (or confusingly), “décalage horaire” can mean either concept, depending on how you use it. Those crazy French speakers.

Looking back, I’m not entirely happy with “that came with it”, which now strikes me as a bit rushed. Given more time (as far as translators are concerned, time is like sex or Irn Bru: you can never have enough of it), I’d probably have swapped it for “that accompanied it” or “that followed”. As a former mentor of mine liked to say, that “sings better”.

As good as a robust bout of hanky-panky.

As good as a robust bout of hanky-panky.

And so onto the quote section. Quotes tend to come as a bit of a relief in these kinds of texts, as they’re generally a bit ‘easier’, although believing this to always be the case can be a dangerous trap to fall into.

Here’s the French again: « Je suis un peu fatigué, c’est vrai, mais pour une rencontre comme celle-là, je vais retrouver de l’énergie, s’amuse-t-il. Face à la France, il y a toujours une rivalité compte tenu de la proximité. C’est une sorte de derby. Et le coach nous a dit qu’un derby, cela se gagne. »

What does he say, in essence? Well, if I was asked by my darling wife, who fell head-over-heels for the charms of Eden Hazard during the World Cup, to summarise this paragraph, I’d come up with something like this: he admits that he feels tired, but he’s still up for it, because it’s a big game. Belgium and France are next-door neighbours (and so they’re also old rivals), and for that reason their coach wants them to make more of an effort.

French speakers use “C’est vrai” all the time, and while “It’s true” is by no means incorrect in English, it sounds a bit, I dunno, false. Out of various options, I select “no doubt”, as in “There’s no doubt that I’m a bit tired, but I’ll be able to muster up the energy needed for a game like this one.” I’m not totally convinced by “muster”, so I substitute it with “summon”. Looking back, even that might be a bit much. Without in any way wanting to sound like a language snob, would an English-speaking footballer typically say “summon up”? Probably not. Ah well, can’t do much about it now, except grumble and mutter darkly in blog form 11 months later.

AKA "Translators, a collective autobiography".

AKA “Translators, a collective biography”.

Next! “S’amuse-t-il” poses an irritating wee problem for translators. Interestingly, for a language that has far fewer words than English, French has lots of descriptive verbs for reported speech, i.e. “ to say”. So do we, I hear you yell proudly: you utter, he states, she remarks, they declare, we explain, I articulate. But the French language does something that English typically cannot manage, namely introducing feelings into these verbs. S’amuser, se revendiquer and assurer are just some examples. And because we can’t say “he amused himself”, we need a work-around. I end up going with “he says with a smile”. It’s not perfect, but it gets across the same vague idea.

The last couple of lines don’t prove to be too testing. “Derby” is often used wrongly as a synonym for “rivalry” in the French sporting press (note to L’Equipe: Marseille vs. PSG is not a derby), but here as we’re dealing with two international teams and Hazard is stating that it’s “like a derby”, it’s fine. The last thing I have to deal with is “cela se gagne”, which is a great example of how beautifully concise the French language can be. In the end, it’s not that tricky to negotiate, and as Francophones wouldn’t ever say, Robert est ton oncle:

“There’s no doubt that I’m a bit tired, but I’ll be able to summon up the energy needed for a game like this one,” he says with a smile. “There’s always a rivalry when we play France, given that we’re neighbors. It’s kind of like a derby. And the coach has made it clear that derbies need to be won.”

This world-renowned sport daily is called "The Team". No, really.

This world-renowned sport daily is called “The Team”. No, really.

Two hours later, having been through the same series of battles, dead ends, discoveries and moments of enlightenment with the rest of the text, I’m finished. I apply American English as the language variant, run a spell-check, change “neighbour” to “neighbor” (mumbling “silly Americans”), run a check for double spaces and then proofread it, once in MS Word and once in the client’s extranet. The final English version can be accessed here.

And then I proceed to forget 85 per cent of what I’ve just written.

Little-known fact: Guy Pierce's character in Memento is a freelance translator.

Little-known fact: Guy Pierce’s character in Memento is a freelance translator.