Search results

The Urge to Correct: Frustrations with Language Translation and Misuse

by Tom Johnson on Dec 27, 2011
categories: technical-writing

Hezy Asher
Hezy Asher

The following is a guest post by Hezy Asher, a technical writer at Quest Software Israel.

VITO CORLEONE: I want you to use all your powers. And all your skills. I don't want his mother to see him this way.

[Removes blanket revealing Sonny's mangled face.]

VITO CORLEONE: Look how they massacred my boy.

I was barely 14 years old when I saw Godfather I for the first time, almost three decades ago. I can recall the exact month (March 1980), and the cinema (which no longer exists) where I first saw this movie, but who knows how many times I've seen it since. If I were pezzonovante enough to be asked for a list of my all-time favorite movies, Godfather will undoubtedly be given the poll position, no matter how many years have elapsed since my irrevocable youth.

Why, then, does the highly emotional scene described above make me now only want to shout "perdoname, Don Vito, but one cannot massacre a single person, only slaughter!"? I guess the old Don cannot be blamed for his English mistake at this particular moment. It's not you, Vito dear, it's me. Being picky has become my profession, or to put it plainly, I have become a technical writer.

Yes, methought I heard a voice cry: Enjoy movies and books no more! You have made it your business to rebuke other people's language, to indicate their faintest English fallacies, to let them feel how negligent they were when they left that redundant comma, the nail for want of which the document kingdom was irretrievably lost. Now you are doomed not to enjoy watching a movie or a TV program, or even reading a book, without noticing the language mistakes constantly made by the ignorant masses!

When living in a non English-speaking country, whose tribal lingua franca happens to be your mother tongue, the curse is even worse: you have to smother your mouth lest a horrible cry sneaks out whenever another horrific translation mistake pops out.

When I became a translator myself, back in 1993, I realized that examples of mistranslations are ubiquitous. The disrespect for the profession of the translator, and the resulting low payment, pushed me to the technical writing profession, which has enormously exacerbated my picking complex.

"And that recommendation, with the exaggerated estimate of my ability with which he prefaced it, was, if you will believe me, Watson, the very first thing which ever made me feel that a profession might be made out of what had up to that time been the merest hobby. At the moment, however, I was too much concerned at the sudden illness of my host to think of anything else." (The Adventure of Gloria Scott", from "The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes").

Oh, how I adore the greatest sleuth of all time, whose adventures have thrilled me for hours on end, making me feel infinitely obliged to his creator, the master storyteller Arthur Conan Doyle. Familiar as I am with his other writings, I still find Holmes the most enjoyable and enduring character Doyle has ever devised. At the moment, however, I am too much concerned with Doyle's excessive use of "which" when he should have written "that". I have even noticed a bloomer in Holmes's stories, when Doyle wrote "insure" instead of "ensure", but I was generous enough to let it off as a typing mistake.

"I think I'm gonna be sad,
I think it's today, yeah.
The girl that's driving me mad
Is going away.

She's got a ticket to ride,
She's got a ticket to ride,
She's got a ticket to ride,
But she don't care."

(Ticket to Ride" – The Beatles)

"The girl that's driving me mad"? "She don't care"? Really, John and Paul, you should have known better. It was you (along with George, may his soul rest in peace) who made me become so interested in the English language, a page with your lyrics being my only friend through teenage nights while I was desperately trying to understand the meaning of your elevated songs. Manys the time you left me really frustrated (how was I supposed to know back then that "meet the wife" mentioned in "Good Morning" was a popular English TV program broadcast at 5 PM?); now I'm also troubled by your use of language.

Yes, my fate is definitely sealed; I am doomed to a picking existence, forever oscillating between the Scylla of poor English usage and the Charybdis of mistranslations. And to make things worse, my eye, so fast at catching other people's mistakes, becomes so slow when I have to save myself from blundering, thereby making me an easy pray for the chief nourishment of every tech writer's life: finding mistakes made by another hapless writer.

Hezy Asher is a lone technical writer at Quest Software Israel, as well as a freelance translator. Since 1993, he has translated several books, as well as many movies and documents, from Dutch and English to Hebrew and from Hebrew to English, and has worked as a technical writer at several hi-tech companies.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the tech comm, be sure to subscribe to email updates below. You can also learn more about me or contact me. Finally, note that the opinions I express on my blog are my own points of view, not that of my employer.