Translating: The devil is in the detail

Translating: The devil is in the detail

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Translating is not a question of simply converting each word in a sentence into another language. UvA Talen explains.

Although languages are alike in many ways, there are some subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) differences. The devil is in the detail, as you will see below, and getting the details right is part of a good translation. 

Getting the saying right: flies and birds

Solving two problems at once is tremendously satisfying and many languages even have a special saying for this. In Polish, you say you grill two pieces of meat on one fire (upiec dwie pieczenie na jednym ogniu). In Dutch and German, you strike two flies with one blow (twee vliegen in één klap, zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagen). In English, the number of dying animals is the same, but speakers of English have birds instead of flies: "killing two birds with one stone".

Sticking with the bird theme: in the Netherlands, we prefer one bird in our hand to ten in the sky (beter één vogel in de hand dan tien in de lucht), but the English find this a gross exaggeration: a bird in the hand is worth only two in the bush.

As a translator, you need to be aware of these differences and think about how the saying goes in the language you are translating into. A literal translation will not suffice and will only confuse your audience.

Animal names and sounds

Speaking of animals, have you ever thought about the sounds they make? In German, a cockerel (a male chicken, which is called rooster in American English) says "kikeriki", in Dutch it is "kukeleku" and in English "cock-a-doodle-doo".

A Dutch cow says "boe", while an English cow says "moo". Other languages seem to side with the British here: in French, it’s "meuh’, in Spanish "¡mu!" and in German "muh".

There are animal interpreters around helping humans to understand their pets, but cows probably have no trouble understanding each other no matter where they are from!

Clothing: Don’t get your knickers in a twist

When translating into English, always ask your clients what variety they prefer. Is the text meant for American or British readers, for example? Or another audience? And do they want -ise or -ize spelling? Translators are aware of cultural differences and sensitivities and bring specialist knowledge to the table. This might save you from embarrassment, when talking about clothes, for example.

Talking about pants might get some strange looks in Britain, as British people will assume you are talking about your underpants, while it simply means trousers in an American context.

Although the Dutch word ‘panty’ and the English word ‘panties’ look and sound almost the same, they mean something different: Dutch "panty’s" are what the Americans call "pantyhose" while the British call them "tights" and you wear them on your legs. English "panties" actually means female underwear, also called "briefs" or "knickers". Not confusing at all, right?

Order! Order!

Another aspect to consider in a translation is the order of words in fixed expressions. In England, you put salt & pepper on your food, while in the Netherlands we prefer it the other way around: "peper & zout". The same goes for your greens: "fruit & veg" becomes "groenten & fruit". Luckily, it makes no difference to the vitamins they contain, just be sure to get your five a day!

The Dutch say "vast en zeker" when they mean "absolutely", but Belgians say it in reverse: "zeker en vast". A sure way of telling where a person is from! Although Dutch spoken in the Netherlands and Dutch spoken in Belgium are very much alike in a general sense, it’s best to use specialised Flemish translators if a text is meant for Belgian readers to give the text a genuine local feeling.

UvA Talen is one of the larger translation agencies in the Netherlands. Their translation department is ISO certified, uses professional and sworn translators and editors, and offers free follow-up care. Want to find out what UvA Talen can do for your company? Visit their website.

Maite François


Maite François

Maite works as a proofreader and translator at UvA Talen. She loves gardening, singing, watching football and cycling around Amsterdam.

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