Keep your reader’s level in mind!

by James Kirchner

One occasionally fatal assumption of many translators is that the materials they are writing will be used by people with an advanced, native command of the target language.  However, especially if you’re translating into English, this may not be true.

How many of you have produced a good translation, only to have your client’s client complain about perfectly correct things that someone with an intermediate language level thinks are “mistakes”?

Or how about terms that are their own opposites?  One example I’ve become aware of recently is the phrasal verb to go off.  This expression can mean:

1.  to start sounding, flashing, etc.
2.  to stop functioning
3.  to explode

Any native speaker will understand that in certain situations, “The alarm goes off,” means that the alarm begins to sound.  In other cases, it’s just as clear to us natives that, “The alarm goes off,” means that it stops sounding!  But what about non-native speakers of English who might be using the target document?  Will they know which meaning is intended based on the context?  Maybe, maybe not.  When in doubt, it’s probably best to say that the alarm sounds, if it starts blaring, or that the alarm shuts off, if it stops making noise.

There are lots of other expressions that may be perfectly clear to native speakers but may be unclear or even endanger the lives of non-natives. We should watch out for them.

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