Getting it right and making sense - Dr John Jamieson


John JamiesonDr John Jamieson is one of NZTC’s longest serving and most respected translators. He is well-known in New Zealand and abroad and has delivered papers at many international conferences. John can translate in nearly thirty different languages. His opinions about language and language translation are always interesting and entertaining.


Translation is essentially a long series of linguistic decisions, some easy, others more difficult. This brief article will provide some examples of both categories.

Easy decisions often refer to ‘getting it right’, and avoiding what we call ‘false friends’. Well-known examples include the German word “Handy”, which is a mobile phone, and “Beamer”, which is a data projector. Nobody seems to know how these English words came to be used in Germany as terms no English speaker would understand, but it is worth noting that a word borrowed directly from another language will often mean something slightly different in its new context. For example “building” in French tends to refer to a large apartment or office building, and “meeting” is usually a political meeting.

In any event, knowing a foreign language clearly includes being aware of these apparently familiar words that mean something quite different. In other cases the meaning is quite clear, but the other languages come at the idea from a different angle as compared with English usage. For example what we call “health insurance” is provided in Germany by “sickness insurance funds” (Krankheitskassen). Similarly, our “lost property” becomes “found objects” (“objets trouvés”) in French. Same story, from a different perspective. 

There are some slightly more subtle examples of this – in the area of veterinary medicine English-speaking officials speak of “control” where in French, German and other European languages they “fight” the disease (“lutte” in French, “Bekämpfung” in German). And some languages “launch” or “initiate” a software program where we just “run” it.

For problems of this kind the trick for the translator is to present the concept from the correct angle or perspective in English, or whatever the target language may be. 

At other times we also come up against slightly more difficult problems of ‘making sense’. One of my favourite examples is the word “information”. In English it mainly refers to data, facts that I can pass on to you, and you to someone else. 

But “information” in French can just as easily denote the action of communicating information in some way, so “études d'information” are probably “media studies” or “communication studies”, i.e. about the art of communicating information to the public. A “voyage d’information”, at least when under taken by members of parliament, is a “fact-finding trip”. i.e. a trip for the parliamentarians to “inform themselves” of what is happening. And an “informationsrum” in Swedish is a briefing room.

To ‘make sense’ in this situation the translator often has to project the familiar, general idea into the specific context to figure out exactly what is happening, and then come up with a term that will send the right signal in the target language - not always an easy task!