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Chopped liver

About 12 years ago, when I was just starting out as a freelance translator, I got a job translating a film script from Icelandic into English. It was written by a young up-and-coming filmmaker [who has since gone on to make a couple of attention-grabbing films] and the translation was commissioned by the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service. The script was to be entered into a pan-European scriptwriting competition held by the national broadcasting services of all European nations and it had to be in English. A couple of months later it was announced that this particular script had won the competition, which was a fairly big deal and got considerable press coverage. Nowhere, however, was there mention of a translator, or indeed, a translation.

I was kinda peeved about that. Not only had I given my best to the assignment, but having my name associated with a prize-winning script would have been really helpful to me at the time. I was new to the trade, assignments were not exactly coming in on a conveyor belt, and I was supporting a small child on my own. So I called up the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service to ask why my name as translator hadn’t been included – wasn’t it common practice to have a translator’s name associated with his or her work? The Director of Domestic programming, whom I was put through to, was extremely defensive, bordering on hostile. No, they did not see the point in mentioning the translator because it wasn’t about the translation, it was about the script. I started to protest, at which he cut me off with the immortal phrase: Þú ert bara þýðandi úti í bæ sem færð greitt fyrir þína vinnu. Which basically translates as: “You’re just some translator who has been paid for your work.” Ah. Thank you for clarifying that.

This incident came to mind last week when I attended the opening of an exhibition held in connection with the Reykjavík Arts Festival. The exhibition – and opening – was at one of Iceland’s most highly-regarded cultural institutions, and a rather lavish catalogue – a book, really – had been published to accompany the exhibition. YT had been commissioned to translate all the text in the book – a significant body of work.

At the opening, the director of this particular institution, who by virtue of her role is one of the main pillars of Icelandic culture, stood up to make a speech. She spoke briefly about the exhibition, then turned her attention to the book, remarking how proud of it she was [deservedly so] and enthusing about all the people involved in making it happen. She cited the names of all the artists featured in the book, the editor, the co-editor, the person who wrote the text, the person who wrote the introduction, and finally, the designer.

Not a word about the translator. This despite the fact that 100 percent of the text in the book was translated, the translation had taken several weeks to complete and had cost this particular institution hundreds of thousands of Icelandic kronur [ISK 100,000 = USD 1,400 / EUR 900]. The translator was a nonentity.

This is merely one example of many, many.

Let’s ponder for a moment what Icelandic society would be like if there were no translators. For one thing, instruction manuals, packaging and such would be in a language other than Icelandic. Seeing as how most consumer goods are imported, that might create a few problems. The vast majority of television programmes and movies would be incomprehensible to a large part of the population. Communication with exporters abroad would be difficult at best, so imports to this country would presumably be severely limited. Icelandic companies and insitutions would not easily be able to promote themselves overseas, so export revenues for this country would be neglible. Foreign cooperation in just about every sector – defense, education, economics, communications, health, culture, arts, science, judicial – would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Icelandic writers and artists would not be able to promote their work outside of Iceland, and similarly Icelanders would not have the benefit of reading works from other cultures in their own language. The tourism sector would be set back by about a century.

In short, this country would regress back to the dark ages.

Most translators work independently and therefore we don’t have the resources to make our voice heard. But does that automatically mean that our work should be insivible? Or dismissed? Or not given the credit it deserves? I wonder if there will ever be an awakening concerning our important contribution to this society. Obviously things have clearly not changed much over the last 12 years, so alas, I am not very hopeful.

Overcast and it’s been threatening to rain, although I’ve yet to see a drop. Apparently we’re in the midst of an Icelandic-style heatwave, wOOt! Yesterday was heavenly, for example, and we wouldn’t mind a bit more sun later today or tomorrow. Right now we have 11°C [52F] with sunrise this morning at 3.38, sunset scheduled for 11.13 this evening.



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • caroline May 26, 2008, 3:11 pm

    one has only to read a bad translation to know how very important the nuance and skill of a really good translator is. so shame on the blindness of those in Iceland who fail to give credit to all translators. Good translation requires as much skill as the original writing, fer shure. Here’s hoping islendigars wake up to that!

  • Bluegrass Mama May 26, 2008, 3:38 pm

    In my senior year of college as a French major, having just finished a semester living in France and considering myself quite fluent, a Greek civilization professor offered the option of translating an article from French to English in lieu of writing a paper. “Piece of cake!” I thought and jumped on the opportunity. I got a glimpse of how difficult translation really is and have a high regard for your profession ever since.

  • Rozanne May 26, 2008, 4:21 pm

    I can so relate to this! As another kind of behind-the-scenes freelancer, I seldom see my name attached to the work I do. I’ve finally sort of gotten over it, but I think I have a bit of a complex about not feeling like I ever get the credit I feel I deserve for the work I do!

    And, yes, without translators Iceland would be in big trouble. No shit!

  • Anonymous May 26, 2008, 5:36 pm

    And then, you see the clowns, stumbling over the most trivial things in language, yet getting more aurar .. (or cents and euros, rather – isk rather uncommon here)

  • Valerie in San Diego May 26, 2008, 6:19 pm

    This is strange to me as a little magazine publisher/editor, because translations are frequently submitted to the journal, and when they are published (and yes, we pay, though obviously at little-magazine rates), the translator’s name is often the most prominent. In the narrow field of English-language literature in the United States, the ability to translate well and gracefully is considered a literary art in itself. I didn’t realize (and am sorry to hear) that this isn’t true in the wider world of publishing.

  • annie May 26, 2008, 7:18 pm

    That is truly shocking, Alda. And I agree with your other commenters, translation is a literary skill which should be valued just as much. (Georges Perec wrote a novel in French without the letter e, which was clever, but then Gilbert Adair and Ian Monk translated it into English, which was double the genius, when you think about it. Gilbert Adair won a literary prize for his translation. )
    Is there no translators’ union? If not, start one up! After strike action recently, I’m all about the unions. And freelancers need backup.

  • hildigunnur May 26, 2008, 7:20 pm

    Grrr, this is totally irritating! A good translator/translation is invaluable.

    Also sometimes one does wonder about books being published (read Hagkaup cooking books, f.ex), large, beautifully printed books in glorious technicolour, good chefs hired to make the recipes – but they consistently forget to have the books proofread.

  • alda May 26, 2008, 8:48 pm

    Thank you for the commiseration, everyone. You’re all so kind.

    annie – no, there’s no translators’ union – literary translators can join the writers’ union, and there’s an association for translators that are certified by the state to translate official documents and such. But no union. – I think the problem is, as I mentioned, that most translators just don’t have the time or leftover energy to devote to ‘the greater good’.

    hildigunnur – the lack of proofreading is an epidemic in this country. How many countless times do you see something that has been made to look impeccable but has atrocious English! Restaurant menus are especially bad [even the expensive ones] – and smaller touring companies.

  • hildigunnur May 26, 2008, 11:03 pm

    Yes, it’s horrible!

  • Sirry in Los Angeles May 27, 2008, 1:07 am

    My advice to you is to put in the contract when you agree to do the work, how you would like to be mentioned regarding that project. That’s how it works in America.

    Best to you Alda,
    kv. Sirry Jonasar

  • Anonymous May 27, 2008, 3:45 am

    I would not join any union! It would be full of clowns. :-<

  • maja May 27, 2008, 8:52 am

    I think it’s ludicrous that they don’t credit the translator! Hey, Sirry in Los Angeles has it right. Include it in the contract. Ha! to them!

    If your translation wasn’t so good then that particular script and book may not have got any recognition or award. Translation isn’t just cut and paste. I would have thought those people would understand that. But I guess they don’t.

  • alda May 27, 2008, 10:55 am

    Hæ Sirrý og velkomin! – I usually only draw up a contract for larger projects and yes, in such cases it is stipulated. Most of my translations, however, I’m not credited for, simply because they’re corporate and it’s not applicable (annual reports, website stuff, promo material, etc.). The one I mentioned in the former example was a valuable lesson, of course – I would (probably) not let that happen again today.

    What I’m talking about mostly, though, is the general disregard for translations and translators. In the second example, I was credited in the book itself, but not mentioned in any of the fanfare. (In fact, I was credited higher than the designer, who nonetheless got a thank you by the aforementioned director in her speech.)

    maja – sadly I think we have a ways to go before people generally realize that translation is not just cut and paste.

  • Stan May 27, 2008, 1:02 pm

    “What I’m talking about mostly, though, is the general disregard for translations and translators. ”

    I’ve noticed this in a lot of cultures, but one would think that Iceland, which so very few Icelandic speakers, would respect the skill and need for translators. My experience with the Icelandic horse community may not be typical, but I have noticed that Icelanders like to show off their command of Icelanglish by not even having their texts edited let alone translated. A major horse magazine crowed about the “first price breading mares” at a particular show. The Icelandic team at the World Championships was headed by a “dictator“. And it goes on from there.

    But it is odd that Iceland generally does not feel the need to translate for foreigner visitors. A tourist looking for help will not get a clue that it may be contained in a car marked “lögregla”. And forget about Hella having a phonetic “Hetla” for hapless travelers. There are all kinds of fun examples.


    Kv Stan

  • alda May 27, 2008, 1:49 pm

    Stan – heheh! Those are pretty funny. That’s the upside of bad translations – you can always laugh at them.

  • Sigvaldi Eggertsson May 27, 2008, 4:02 pm

    Alda, I agree with you on the value of translators and I think that the reputations of many of our major writers (Laxness, Jónas Hallgrímsson etc. was partly based on their skill as translators and, in the case of Jónas, as inventors of the words themselves.
    But you, Stan, I do not agree with, tourists to Iceland must realise that Iceland has it´s own language and I think the tourist you mention will just have to do as he would in France or in other non-english speaking countries.

  • Anonymous May 27, 2008, 5:25 pm

    Eh, sorry if you don’t like the surrealism. No offense was intended.

    The German weather report says: Sun, sun sun awful sun. Yesterday some droplets of rain vaporized immediately … effectively no rain for weeks, none, zero

  • tk May 27, 2008, 6:09 pm

    How ironic that a book about arts and artists fails to recognize the translator’s art as such. Perhaps next time if you did the translation in verse…

    Does it make a difference if you are translating from or to Icelandic? One might guess that translating from Icelandic to English is not as creditable as the other way around, to people as proud of their language as Nicelanders are.

    (Alda, is the book the one with the blue cube (“Blue Magnet”) on the cover?)

    Bad translations: On a bottle of washing-up liquid from Eastern Europe, in English: “Keep out of children.”

  • alda May 27, 2008, 6:32 pm

    tk – good idea! Perhaps an annual report in verse next time … 🙂

    Not sure about the difference, as I only translate from Icelandic to English. And no, that’s not the book.

    I love bad translations. Keep them coming!

  • gary May 27, 2008, 7:00 pm

    you should start a union for translators. fight the power alda!

  • Anonymous May 27, 2008, 7:02 pm

    Drily camp down

    (store [those maize groats] in a dry place)

  • Anonymous May 27, 2008, 7:03 pm

    This place is supervised by video

    ([Warning, ] this place is under video surveillance)

    Yes, those are all real examples

  • alda May 27, 2008, 7:29 pm

    Heheh. One of my favourites is for a donkey ride in Turkey:


  • tk May 27, 2008, 8:10 pm

    Better than someone else riding it. 🙂

    Try searching on “menu” in Flickr. Plenty of badly translated Asian menus. I’m having the”bureau mince meat idea powder”.

  • VioletSky May 27, 2008, 9:03 pm

    I’ve always thought a good translator needs to be a bit of a poet.

  • Margret in DK May 28, 2008, 11:52 am

    Like yourself I was raised in (the U.S. actually, not Canada) and moved back to Iceland as an adult and although I don’t have a “degree” in translating, through the years I’ve been asked to translate a paper here or a research project there…. you know, “bara massa þetta snöggvast”. So I quickly learned how much work and brainpower goes into translating and although I don’t personally know any translators, I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for the work they do and take notice a lot more often when I see a peice of liturature thats been translated. So, pat on the back Alda and keep up the good work!

  • Jon May 28, 2008, 3:31 pm

    Here is a link to a list of bad translations. https://www.dribbleglass.com/Jokes/translations.htm

  • alda May 28, 2008, 6:34 pm

    Jon – thanks for the link. It’s the same list that I got the sign from upthread, only when I read it it was Turkey, not Thailand. – Those always make me laugh, they’re just so funny!

    tk – I know, a friend sent me a Power Point attachment with some of those Asian signs, and they are SO hilarious.

    VioletSky and Margaret – thanks for the support!

  • Professor Batty May 29, 2008, 3:00 am

    … I think the case for needing good translators is best summed up by that immortal phrase:

    “All your base are belong to us!”

  • Anonymous May 29, 2008, 3:27 am

    Now we’re getting surreal again?

    I is pleased!

  • Anonymous May 30, 2008, 11:13 am
  • Anonymous June 4, 2008, 2:32 am

    “Geldstrafe Englisch Bulldogge Welpen zu verkaufen.”

    Meine Machtliefereinheit hat strenge Ausgabemacht!