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Introduction

So, it’s a bit weird to do an introduction as the fourth post on a blog instead of the first, but that’s where we’re at, since I completely forgot to write an introduction when I started this blog and went straight for the interesting stuff. Well, better late than never.

My name’s Rick, and I write about translation, language learning, and linguistics. I recently graduated with a BA degree in Japan Studies, and am preparing for a MA degree in translation. I’ve always been interested in languages and linguistics, and spent hours as a teen looking through Omniglot, just reading random pages. I love learning about languages, as well as teaching them. I’m a tutor for English to middle and high school students, and gave a workshop on basic Japanese at my old high school a few years ago.

My main interest in translation is the theory behind it. Actually translating is a lot of fun, but I love analyzing translations and translation theories even more. On this blog, I will be mainly writing about topics I’ve come across while translating or studying, as well as my thought process behind these topics.

As for my language goals: I hope to one day speak ten languages, and I’m hoping to achieve five languages within the next three years. I currently speak Dutch and English, am pretty good (but not fluent) in Japanese and German, and have just picked up Hindi again after taking a semester of it in uni and then forgetting about it for two years.

I’m always open to talk about translation and languages, so feel free to leave comments and ask questions, I’ll be happy to respond! Finally, I hope you enjoy reading this blog as much as I enjoy writing it.

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Translations

How to translate: Venomous and Poisonous

When I started learning English, two words always confused me, due to my textbook not explaining the difference. Those words were, as you might have guessed, poisonous and venomous. In my textbook, it said that they both mean giftig in Dutch, which gave me the impression that they were interchangeable. One time, I gave a presentation in English class and said something along the lines of “a venomous frog,” which resulted in a weird look from my teacher, who explained to me that it’s supposed to be “a poisonous frog” and “a venomous snake.” But 14-year-old me wasn’t satisfied yet. I have always had a slight interest in poisonous and venomous animals, and I wanted to know why that distinction mattered. What makes a snake venomous and a frog poisonous? And what about scorpions? Or spiders? Eventually, I stumbled across an image on the internet that said “If it bites you and you die, it’s venomous. If you bite it and you die, it’s poisonous.” To many of the people reading this, it all sounds so simple, but it was confusing to me back then, and this single sentence helped me understand the distinction better.

If we want to translate the words poisonous and venomous, we need to be clear on the difference in meaning. A venomous animal uses fangs, stingers, spines, or other body parts to inject a toxin in a prey or attacker. Some examples are cobras, hornets, box jellyfish (which I’ve written something about in a different post), and the platypus, one of the few venomous mammals. A poisonous animal uses toxins as a way to not get eaten by predators. Some examples of poisonous animals are poison dart frogs, the infamous fugu, and the pitohui, one of the few poisonous birds. So to give a concise definition:
Poisonous: Secretes toxins through its skin or a specialized gland to avoid being eaten.
Venomous: Injects toxins into a wound, in order to kill/capture prey and fend off attackers.

Out of all languages I’m familiar with (this doesn’t mean I speak all of them fluently of course), English is the only language making the distinction between poisonous and venomous. Dutch, German, Japanese, and Hindi all have a single word which means both poisonous and venomous.

LanguageMeaning
DutchGiftig
GermanGiftig
Japanese毒々しい (dokudokushii)
Hindiविषैला (vishailaa)

So now that we’ve established the definitions of the words poisonous and venomous, as well as their counterparts in other languages, how are we going to translate it? In most cases, the solution is quite simple: just use the words I’ve given above. Most sentences and texts talking about venomous and poisonous animals will most likely not focus on the distinction between the two terms, so there’s no reason to make this more difficult for yourself. But if you ask me, thinking about translation is more fun when it comes to the rare corner-cases that you barely ever see, so let’s make one up! Let’s say we have a text fragment that looks like this, with a translation brief that specifically wants us to keep the distinction:

Some frogs are poisonous, while some snakes are venomous.

As you can see, translating this using the words in the above table gives us a bad translation. Let’s look at the Dutch translation for this sentence, as that is the language I’m most comfortable translating to. The sentence would look somewhat like this: “Sommige kikkers zijn giftig, maar sommige slangen zijn giftig.” Do you see the issue? We’re repeating the same adjective, even though there’s supposed to be a distinction between the two, and the meaning of the Dutch word giftig doesn’t allow for that distinction to be made. What are our options? We can’t just make up two new words that mean poisonous and venomous respectively, try to get them printed in the Dutch dictionaries, and expect people to use and understand them. That’s now how language works, so we need another method to make our target audience understand the distinction. Making these distinctions the core of our translation is a good option here. There are a few ways that we can differentiate between venomous and poisonous, which I will explain next.

The first way to differentiate the two terms is with the method of delivery. A poisonous animal does not need a specialized delivery method, as the goal of a poisonous animal isn’t to poison something, but to deter predators from eating it. Venomous animals, on the other hand, do have specialized delivery methods for their venom. Snakes have fangs, scorpions have stingers, and stonefish have spines. In other words, venomous animals actively inject venom into other organisms, and poisonous animals passively poison other organisms when they’re eaten. Using this method, our translation looks like this: “Sommige kikkers zijn passief giftig, maar sommige slangen zijn actief giftig.” This doesn’t quite work as a sentence, so we need to do some retooling. Depending on how much space we have, we can edit our translation to explain the distinction a bit more, for example: “Kikkers scheiden passief gif af, maar slangen moeten hun gif actief injecteren.” This still isn’t a sentence I would use in the final translation, but since this is a hypothetical situation, that’s not important. The most important thing here is to give a clear distinction between a poisonous animal and a venomous animal, which you can do by placing focus on the difference in delivery.

Placing focus on the different delivery systems can also be done in another way. Instead of looking at active and passive delivery of toxins, we can look at the body parts used to deliver them. Many poisonous animals have toxins that don’t need to enter the body through the bloodstream, but enter through the skin and digestive system, so they don’t need specialized fangs, stingers, or barbs. Dart frogs, for example, secrete their toxins through their skin, and show their toxicity using their bright colours (this is called aposematism). Venomous animals have specialized body parts to inject their venom into their victim’s bloodstream, such as fangs, stingers, or barbs. So if we focus on that difference, we can translate the sentence like this: “Giftige kikkers scheiden hun gif af door hun huid, maar giftige slangen moeten hun gif in hun prooi bijten.” The issue with this sentence is that it only shows the difference between frogs and snakes, and not necessarily between all poisonous and venomous animals. There are many poisonous animals (including the fugu) that have their poison concentrated inside of their bodies instead of on the skin, and not all venomous animals use bites to inject venom. Of course, if the text you’re translating is only about frogs and snakes, then this would be a great way to show the differences between the two, but it’s not quite right for describing the general differences between poisonous and venomous animals.

Another way to differentiate poisonous and venomous animals is with the way they use their toxins. Poisonous animals mainly use their poison defensively to avoid being eaten, while venomous animals use their toxins offensively, to capture and kill prey or fend off attackers. If we use this in translation, we get a sentence like “Kikkers gebruiken hun gif defensief, maar slangen gebruiken hun gif offensief.” This clearly shows the difference between poison and venom, while making it understandable for the readers. I personally prefer this translation over the others, as it clearly explains the difference in a concise manner and doesn’t cause much confusion.

That’s all I have to say for now about the words poisonous and venomous, and how to translate them to a language that doesn’t naturally make that distinction. I have one last question to think about with regards to this translation: there is a snake that’s both poisonous and venomous (the Rhabdophis keelback snake), and I’m curious how you would translate that in a text if you need to explain this. If the sentence to translate is “Some snakes are both venomous and poisonous,” how would you do this? Feel free to let me know!

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Translations

What’s in a Name, Part 2: Down Under

Welcome back to What’s in a Name, where we look at how to translate animal names! Last time, we discussed what to do with turtles and tortoises, but this time we’re looking at the more dangerous side of wildlife; we’re talking about deadly animals in Australia. This fragment is from an assignment my best friend and her classmates had to do for class, and she went to me for help with translating the animal names. The sentence I’ve chosen to analyze here contains multiple animal names that can cause problems in the translation process. We’ll look at what to do if an animal doesn’t have a name in your target language, so-called ‘false friends’ in animal name translation, and another discussion on when to use generic animal names over species names. The sentence itself lends itself to translation well, so I will only discuss the animal name translation for the five species mentioned. This fragment will require a lot of analysis, so I will split this article up into two parts because I don’t want to write a huge wall of text.

Text analysis and translation (English to Dutch)

Text fragment:

Five of its creatures—the funnel-web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish—are the most lethal of their type in the world.1

Bryson, B. (2000). Down under. London: Doubleday.

Translation brief: You’re translating a travelogue on Australia to Dutch for a general audience.

Five animal species are mentioned in this fragment, but not all are mentioned in the same way. The blue-ringed octopus and paralysis tick are specific species, the box jellyfish and stonefish are generic names encompassing a whole class and genus respectively. The funnel-web spider is a generic name that is used here as a reference to a specific species, the Australian funnel-web spider (Atrax robustus). I will discuss each of these species separately and show the way I would translate the animal name, but I won’t show the translated sentence, as it’s a simple sentence with the only difficulties being the animal names.

Funnel web spider

The first species mentioned is the funnel-web spider, which, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, refers to the Australian funnel-web spider. This is a good example of a so-called ‘false friend’ that I fell for the first time I saw this fragment (and I’m not the only one making this mistake). In translation, a false friend is a word that looks a lot like a word in a different language but means something else. An example would be the German Handy, meaning cell phone, compared to the English handy. The Dutch word for spider is spin, and the Dutch word for funnel is trechter. Knowing that we have the name trechterspin in Dutch, I decided I’d translate it like that and call it a day. But, when I did some further research, I found out that I had mentioned a completely different family of spiders. The Australian funnel-web spider refers to a group of spiders belonging to the family Hexathelidae, with Atrax robustus and Hadronyche modesta being the most well-known, while the Dutch word trechterspin refers to the family Agalenidae, which consists not of funnel-web spiders, but funnel weaver spiders.
Now, you might not see this as an issue, but if you translate it as trechterspin and a reader of the translation then decides to look up some information would find out that these spiders can be found all over the world, including in the Netherlands. So imagine you don’t know much about animals, see the name of a deadly animal in a book, look it up, and find out it lives in your country. Many people would (rightfully so) not enjoy that thought. Or what if someone who happens to know a lot about animals would read this fragment? The moment they look up the animal you mentioned, they would find out you picked the wrong name.
So if trechterspin isn’t an option, what should we do? The answer is simple: research until you find an option. Go on Google, Wikipedia, get an encyclopedia, anything works if it gets you the answer. After some research, I found the name Australische tunnelwebspin, which literally translates to Australian tunnel-web spider, named after the distinctive shape of its web. Another translation offered was the one I dismissed earlier, Australische trechterspin, which surprised me. I am still of the opinion that this translation can cause confusion in readers, and as someone with a love for biology, I try to avoid using incorrect nomenclature wherever possible.
The translation I would use in this case is Australische tunnelwebspin, as this one can only refer to a single species, while the word trechterspin can cause confusion and technically refers to the wrong family of organisms.

Box jellyfish

The second species mentioned in the fragment is the box jellyfish. The name box jellyfish refers to the class of organisms known as Cubozoa. Some of the notorious species of box jellyfish are the sea wasp (Chironex fleckeri) and several species known as the irukandji jellyfish. Interestingly enough, even though these are all known as box jellyfish, the one most referred to by the name box jellyfish is the sea wasp (C. fleckeri)2. This leaves us with two options in the translation: Do we keep the general term box jellyfish just to be on the safe side; or do we use the name sea wasp as a base for our translation?
Using the general term box jellyfish as a base for our Dutch translation gives us the term kubuskwal, which is the general Dutch term for the family of Cubozoa. This term has the advantage of encompassing all species of box jellyfish, including the aforementioned irukandji. It works as a catch-all term, but the fragment itself doesn’t lend itself to that translation. “Five of its creatures” means you can’t just use a general term like that, as it describes five specific creatures, not groups of creatures.
The other option for translation is using the species name sea wasp as a base, resulting in the Dutch translation zeewesp. This is a specific translation referring only to the species C. fleckeri, which is the best-known species of box jellyfish in Australia, and the most venomous jellyfish in the world. Using this translation allows the reader to do their research on this animal, and fits better in the sentence, which is about specific creatures.
Looking at Dutch media, both terms are used interchangeably. Some media prefer the term kubuskwal, while others prefer zeewesp. In other situations, looking at the most common term used by media in the target language can offer some good insights, but that is not the case here. Since the media use both terms, in the end, the decision lies with us, the translator. Do we go for the general term or the specific one? We can always ask the client what they think, and this should often be done in situations like this because your translation needs to match the client’s expectations. Since this was an assignment for a class, we don’t have the luxury of asking the client, so I would personally use the translation zeewesp, because it is a more specific translation that is more fitting for Australia on its own, whereas kubuskwal can apply to the entire class of Cubozoa, which are found around the world.

That’s all for the first half of this article! Next time I’ll discuss the remaining three species mentioned in this fragment: the blue-ringed octopus, the paralysis tick, and the stonefish!

Sources

1 Bryson, B. (2000). Down under. London: Doubleday.
2 https://www.barrierreefaustralia.com/info/reef-dangers/box-jellyfish/
Featured image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Victorian_funnelweb02.jpg

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Translations

What’s in a Name, Part 1: Turtle Troubles

As someone with a passion for zoology and translation, translating animal names is something I often think about. I never saw translating animal names as a big challenge, since most animals have a proper name in the languages you work with (Dutch, Japanese and English, in my case), and even if that’s not the case, one can always refer to the scientific name and a literal translation of the English name. Crested Gecko in English can easily be translated to Wimpergekko in Dutch and オウカンミカドヤモリ Oukan Mikado Yamori in Japanese, or if you want to make sure your target audience understands which species you’re talking about, the scientific name Correlophus Ciliatus clears all doubt. But what do you do if your source text uses a name that’s too general, or too specific? I will give two examples of animal name translation that stuck with me, and show my thought process as I work through translating these parts. I will discuss one text fragment today, and another in a week (maybe sooner, I don’t have a set writing schedule yet). If you disagree with my translations or arguments, feel free to leave a comment, I’m always open to civil discussion!

Text analysis and translation (Dutch to English)

Text fragment:

Schildpadden zijn dieren die op het land, maar ook in het water leven. We kunnen schildpadden onderverdelen in groepen: landschildpadden, moerasschildpadden, en zeeschildpadden.

Translation brief: This is from a presentation for British primary school students

The key point in this translation to me is that it’s for British primary school students. This means that we need to translate into British English, which is where the problems begin. The Dutch word schildpad is a general term, encompassing tortoises, terrapins, and sea turtles. In American English, the word turtle is similar to the Dutch schildpad, meaning it can be used to describe any of the species in the order Chelonia. In British English, however, the word turtle describes only the marine and freshwater turtles. The all-encompassing term for tortoises and turtles in British English is Chelonian. So, translating the first sentence as “Turtles are animals that can live on land and in the water.” would not work. The sentence would be factually correct because turtles can, in fact, move on land and survive there for a while, but it would not work because this sentence implies that this sentence is only about aquatic turtles, and not about tortoises. Trying this on the second sentence would result in “Turtles can be divided into three groups: tortoises, terrapins, and turtles.” This looks weird in British English because a turtle can only be aquatic, so setting tortoises as a group of turtles is impossible. This means that we can’t use the word turtles as the translation here, so that leaves chelonian as an option.
This raises another issue. Is the word chelonian common enough to be used for primary school students? The answer is obviously no, many adults won’t have heard of the word chelonian, so I doubt many primary school students know the word. Translating the first sentence as “Chelonians are animals that can live on land and in the water.” doesn’t work if the students don’t know what a chelonian is in the first place. For the second sentence, however, using chelonian might work: “Chelonians can be divided into three groups: tortoises, terrapins, and turtles.” This is a good sentence, all it needs is an introduction of the word chelonian and it could work. But how do we introduce the word chelonian in the text without over-complicating it?

One option is to incorporate it in the previous sentence. The text would then be something like this: “Turtles are part of a group of animals called Chelonians, which can live on land and in water. Chelonians can be divided into three groups: tortoises, terrapins, and turtles.” These sentences are short and use simple grammar, which makes them easily understood by primary school students of all ages while avoiding any factual inaccuracies related to chelonians.
Another option is to start the text with an introduction on chelonians. This would move the second sentence of this text fragment to the beginning, starting the text with “Turtles, tortoises, and terrapins all belong to a group of animals called Chelonians.” This provides a clear explanation from the start, making it easier to use the term chelonians in other parts of the text where necessary.

Now that we’ve solved the Chelonian conundrum, there are a few more things to do before we can finish this translation as a first draft. First, we need to figure out how to continue from here. Do we replace every general mention of turtle with chelonian? This would be the most accurate option, but we have to keep our target audience, primary school students, in mind. Do children really want to constantly hear the word chelonian in a presentation? I can imagine that they’ll get bored with the word, or forget what exactly a chelonian is.
However, using turtle instead of chelonian goes against the narrative we’ve established. In British English, all turtles are chelonians, but not all chelonians are turtles, so blindly using turtle means we are directly contradicting ourselves on top of using incorrect language. Would primary school students mind if we used turtle for the rest of the text? Probably not, but using it as a general term after establishing the term chelonian will most likely only add to the confusion.
The solution I’ve gone for is to add a small ‘disclaimer’ in the text, saying that, while chelonian is the technically correct term, we will use turtle when we refer to them, and use the specific terms of tortoise, terrapin (or freshwater turtle), and sea turtle. This clears up the confusion over the term turtle, explains what a chelonian is for the students who might be interested, and allows us to put specific names for certain facts that only apply to one of the three groups of chelonians. This leaves us with a first draft that looks like this:

Turtles are part of a group of animals called Chelonians, which can live on land and in the water. Chelonians can be divided into three groups: tortoises, terrapins (or freshwater turtles), and sea turtles. From now on, when we say turtle, we actually mean chelonian, but turtle is a lot easier to say.

Keep in mind that this is only a first draft, and will most likely go through many revisions before the finished product, but at least we have a base to work off of, and we can send this draft to the client for approval and further comments.

That does it for the first part on animal name translation! Feel free to leave a comment with your insights if you agree or disagree with me, and I’ll try my best to reply to you. The next part will involve some well-known Australian animals, including the infamous box jellyfish (Chironex Fleckeri).

Featured image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Green_turtle_John_Pennekamp.jpg