Levels of formality in translation

This week, I’m doing something that’s not highly recommended for a translator: working into my two source languages. Please, do not do this for a client, ever. If you weren’t born into a language, you simply will not notice the “non-nativisms” in your translation, no matter how strong your grasp of vocabulary, syntax, grammar, etc. Not good.

My no-no project is a personal one, namely, my business website. Making my website trilingual is one of my goals for 2013. I debated with myself a long while. On the one hand, if my text ends up looking a little funny to a French or Hungarian potential client, it might turn them off my services. Plus, this is something all translators try to dissuade clients from doing. I should be setting a better example, probably. However, I always try to address emails and other communication to my clients in their native language. They’ll find out fairly quickly that, though I am fluent in French/Hungarian, I do make minor mistakes in my writing (most of which native speakers make, too! Think about it: how many times have you seen an anglophone non-language professional misuse “their” or “there,” or incorrectly insert an apostrophe in “it’s purpose is to…”? Plenty, I’m sure!). Paying for a professionally error-free translation won’t fool anyone for long.

So, I decided that I would translate my copy myself. It’s good practice for my own writing skills, and it creates an honest showcase of my grasp of my working languages. I’ll have some native speakers read through my work for me just to double-check. And later on, I can hire a couple translators I know to really do some deep revision, if necessary.

Right now, I’m struggling with a language decision even a professional English-to-Hungarian translator would stumble across: Hungarian websites have slightly different levels of formality than do English ones. French sites are written with their own variation, too. For instance, when addressing the reader, should I use the formal “Ön/Vous”? Or the slightly less formal but still respectful “Maga”? I need to strike a good balance between writing copy that any target reader will be comfortable with, and maintaining my own personality and voice to attract like-minded clients. Here’s one (easier) example:

  • Rather than say “Contact me,” I want to use the English “get in touch.” It’s pretty informal language, but it’s normal usage in US business, as formality is lately viewed as outdated.
  • In French, I’ve chosen: “Prenez contact,” with the more respectful “vous” conjugation. I know “tu” is becoming more popular, but I don’t think it can hurt to be a little extra polite.
  • In Hungarian: “Elérhetőség,” which just means how [you] can reach [me]. It’s far more common on Hungarian sites to use this phrase, rather than an imperative; commands are avoided whenever possible (even recipes say, “let’s mix these ingredients together,” rather than just “mix them together”!).

For more difficult phrases, I’ve been scouring the search engines for parallel texts—other translators’ websites. There are surprisingly few in Hungarian… Maybe I just don’t know what keywords Hungarians are using when they search for a translation pro. The ones I do find have slightly different page layouts than anglophone translators’ sites do, too. Cultural differences run deep!

Have you run into this conundrum before in your translations? When adjusting your text, do you err on the side of the source culture, or the target culture?

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2 thoughts on “Levels of formality in translation

  1. Carolyn, I’m enjoying nosing through your posts! It is great that you are considering level of formality and weighing your own preferences against what those of your client might be. It’s a great conversation to have with the client also. One of my fondest memories was giving my final speech in Hungarian. I had learned transactional, street, & basic office terms, but for the final hurrah, I wanted more. Working closely with our talented translator, we crafted a speech together that used more poetic terms to convey not just the content of a farewell, but appreciation of the language & culture I had grown to love. I will always be grateful she helped me pull that off!

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