December 19, 2018

Preferential choices? Finding the right words.

By admin-emal-184 Views-No Comment

Translators sometimes have discussions with clients over “preferential” word choices. I just read a post from a colleague who reported that their client had replaced “good luck in all your endeavors”on a Christmas card with “good luck in all your personal and professional projects.”

First of all, we translators should check the facts before making a translation choice. This will save the embarassment of ending up in a “my word against your word” situation with our clients.

But what are the facts? There are two angles to this example:

1. The company feared that “endeavors” could exceed the vocabulary of many of its non-native business partners. That’s a legitimate concern. “Project” is a stretchy word, but I guess even business people in remote Chinese villages would understand it.

2. On the other hand, as a greeting “endeavors” is far more common than “projects.” How do you prove it? It’s called “corpus search” or “concordance search,” i.e. scanning huge amounts of text for how often a phrase appears.

The most basic way to google “in all your projects” and “in all your endeavors”:

endeavors vs projects

Looks like a clear winner.

You can also use Google’s autocomplete feature for a frequency-based list without  numbers:

In all your.GIF

More advanced corpus search engines like Sketch Engine will let you check how “endeavor” is used in combinations with other words, so you can rule out unidiomatic combinations. Sketch Engine is a paid service, but it offers a few open corpora that you can search for free.


Check how a word is used in various contexts.

So what is the right choice for your Christmas card? Apart from frequency, there are many other factors for finding the right words in your target language. Functional translation theory (an extension of Skopos theory) names a sender, recipient, intention, medium, time, place, and location as external text factors (there’s also internal factors, and heaps of books on this subject).

In business (and in my opinion) the end user (recipient) is the most important factor, because they’re usually the one buying your stuff. So for a law firm, a baroque and boring choice like “best of luck in all your endeavors” would be the safe choice. It shows you know many words and aren’t gonna start some fancy shit.

A fancy start-up, on the other hand, may say “Hope you get all your stuff done, cya!” But if I were the translator, I’d charge extra for coming up with cutesy phrases… In most other situations, the idiomatic choice (i.e. most commonly used in this context) would be the safest bet.

However, if your client has another preference – which is not utterly embarassing – why not go with the flow? Knowing the facts is good, but listening to your clients is better…

What’s your take? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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