February 10, 2021

Titles in university translation – if in doubt, choose Latin

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Although translation equivalence is a far wider issue than just the mapping of terms, term questions usually raise interesting discussions. I had one today about the term “Beisitzer.” At German university exams, this is a person who supervises the exam procedure.

A bad habit among translators is “in dubio pro latine” (if in doubt, choose Latin). They see a word they don’t really know the meaning of and pick the most foreign-sounding choice from a bilingual dictionary like dict.cc. In my case, a previous translator had chosen “assessor,” which, despite its officialese ring, means something different.

Simply consulting a monolingual dictionary, like Wiktionary, would show that a role very similar to the Beisitzer is called “invigilator” in the UK and “proctor” in the US. However, even here the duties and name of this role may vary from one institution to the next. Also, if you read closely, the invigilator/proctor’s job is to watch the students, not the exam procedure.

Here the question is not what is the correct term but rather which term or expression best describes what this person does. It doesn’t even matter if this term is widely used in the target language.

I asked some translator colleagues who had actually sat in on exams, and my conclusion was that, depending on whether the exam is oral or written, the main examiner may be assisted by more or less active colleagues. The active ones may also ask questions; a self-explanatory term that’s used here is “co-examiner.” The ones that just keep track of the procedure are best described as “exam observers” while a role that monitors that students don’t cheat could be translated as “supervisor.”

The strategy here is to go from specific to generic. “Invigilator,” “proctor” and “assessor” are much too narrow. That’s like translating “Chancellor” as “President.” A fitting translation that covers both – and eschews Latin – would be “head of state.”

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