When experience is your only dictionary

by James Kirchner

A few months ago, I did a pro bono translation job for an organization called Traducteurs sans frontières, whose name translates as “Translators Without Borders”. The assignment I was given was a sheet of general local information for people arriving to attend a conference on gender violence that was being held in the Congo.

Everything went smoothly until I reached the section on money. It said that in that country two currencies are used, the Congolese franc and the US dollar. Then came the tough part. The French text said literally, “Big heads only, and no $1.00 bills in Kinshasa, generally speaking.”

I searched through all kinds of French reference materials to find out what the French term meaning “big heads” could mean in regard to currency but came up with nothing. I asked a group of financial translators working in French, and they didn’t know. I contacted a very competent French colleague, who also didn’t know, and he called his relatives in France, who were equally mystified.

So I had to imagine myself on the street of a developing country using or exchanging money. That harked back several years to my time in newly liberated Czechoslovakia, and to my knowledge of what Czechs call veksláci, or street money changers.

Many of these money changers are tricky guys, and a lot of them are outright swindlers. Among their classic scams: (1) selling the tourist a “newspaper sandwich”, that is, a stack of newspaper with a couple of real bills on the top and bottom; (2) selling the tourist obsolete bills, for example bills from the old regime or those taken out of circulation.

I remembered that the US had introduced new bills for most denominations, and that these bills have larger portraits.  Aha!  Big heads! Any US bill without a large portrait or “big head” is liable to be obsolete or counterfeit.

So what the writer had expressed in French about “big heads” and no $1.00 bills in the capital was essentially this:  “Large-portrait bills only, and no $1.00 bills in Kinshasa, generally speaking.” I checked this with colleagues who had street-level connections in Africa, and my instinct turned out to be right. It was telling people how to protect themselves from moneychanging scams.

This is just one more illustration of why it is usually better to translate from images to images, rather than from words to words. So just like artists and designers, it’s very important for translators to see and experience things.

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Filed under Pro Bono, Terminology

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