March 1st, 2011

lacks sexual intrigue

translating unfamiliar cultural concepts when footnotes aren't feasible

Currently I am working on a translation job from my native language, English, to Mandarin Chinese. Before you chide me for doing that, let it be known that I told the person who hired me that first language -> second language is a bad idea and that I cannot guarantee anything in this direction. She's a native Mandarin speaker and she said she didn't care, she was so impressed by the previous job I did for them (Mandarin -> English), and that she would have a native speaker edit it for style. I felt like morally I had done my duty by warning her, and financially I can't really afford to turn down work, so I'm giving it my best.

Anyway, it's some documents that will be used in a business conference, and thus they contain a lot of business jargon. I'm very much not a business person, but when I scanned the papers, the jargon were all things I was familiar with, even if I didn't know exactly how to say them in Chinese, so I figured with a trusty dictionary I would be ok.

For the most part, I'm doing fine, but I've run into two sentences that have stymied me, and it was very unexpected, since the trouble spots were things I did not think of as uniquely Western concepts:

"I enjoy the energy of networking" and "I know how to work the system and get cooperation."

What I discovered from researching how to translate these two phrases on the internet stunned me.

1. Lots of people are asking what these bold phrases mean.
2. The answers that are given in response to these questions are either misleading or flat out wrong.

For example, for "networking", I discovered a site that translated "You have to network if you want to get a good job" as "你要想得到好工作,应当上网" which actually means "If you want to get a good job, you should go online". I was able to find some sites which explained what networking was accurately, but these were more like dictionary definitions than translations.

"Work the system" is even worse. I did not find a single page that got even close. One particularly hilariously wrong translation turned out to be another glorious example of Google Translate's complete imbecility regarding Chinese/English translation (for those who will appreciate it, it was "他已经谁知道如何工作的系统具有良好的律师"). The problem is that even the non-hilarious translations are literal word-for-word ones, and thus far too vague and emotionally neutral. To understand what I mean, it is like "work the system" versus "operate the system"; the translations I found were all like the latter. (As an aside, you also run into the problem of the Chinese words for things like "operating system" sounding very much like this.) They had missed entirely the meaning of the phrase as a set phrase, namely, "knowing the rules of the company/government/etc inside and out and know exactly how to use those rules and regulations to get what you want, often by obeying the letter of the law rather than the spirit". Could I translate what I just wrote into Mandarin? Yes. Would that fit the mood of the handout? Not in the slightest. It would sound pedantic and wordy.

Ultimately I decided (based partly on context decisions) to go with "我喜歡商業交流聚會激動的氣氛" for the former translation and "我知道如何利用環境而得到合作" for the latter. Getting help on these specific translations isn't why I'm here (although I wouldn't mind hearing suggestions from others); rather, I'd like to get people's opinions on the larger issue of translating something that seems to call out for a long culturally sensitive footnote when space or other constraints make that unfeasible.

Are you doomed, at least sometimes, to have to say things the original doesn't say in order for the reader to understand you at all?

Partly I feel frustrated because I think that there must be a better way of saying it. I mean, "networking" in the Western sense is like the Chinese guanxi except (if I can use my own, subjective and perhaps politically incorrect opinion here) only somewhat pervasive and terrifying rather than totally pervasive and terrifying. (Can something be "somewhat pervasive"? Let's pretend it can, it's late and my brain hurts.) And as for "work the system", I have totally met people in China and Taiwan who knew how to do this, so it seems like a way to say it should exist for it. It's hard not to feel like the perfect phrase is already out there and I just don't know it.