Not Quite the News

Bad Translations Make Fools Into Heroes and Misinform an Unsuspecting Public

Most German language television news stations take great pains to ensure accuracy and have recently also begun a Europe-wide video archiving system. However, the translation quality of foreign interviews leaves much to be desired.

When dubbing a film, the goal is for the translation to sound idiomatic and familiar to the target audience and for the wording to fit well with the mouth movements in the original. In television, most translations are for interviews or source material in another language, often English.  Here, more literal accuracy is required.

The discrepancy between the original and the target language is sometimes staggering.  From a news perspective, many politicians are given a more credible voice in translation. A German speaker might understand an address by US president George W. Bush as subtle and well-informed, while the original is clumsier, more affected and ambiguous.

Down-market programs don’t hesitate to turn uneducated slang into respectable High German – making the simple phrasing of a construction worker sound like an Oxford graduate. The difference between a musician describing his work as “very sexual” and the German translation of “sehr sexy” (very sexy), as it was translated on the Pro Sieben society and gossip show Taff, can be overlooked. The meaning gets across.

But when he says “It’s exciting!” and it is translated as “Es fühlt sich verdammt gut an” (It feels damn good), we’re already getting vague.

A misrepresented source loses credibility.  The impact on the target audience is often weakened, and nearly as important, non-native speakers or children leaning English may associate the wrong words or phrases with bad translations they have heard.

Many stations over-dub their live interviews, for instance giving Condelezza Rice a man’s voice and leaving out adjectives and metaphors in the interest of time constraints. From a news perspective, this is understandable during live coverage. A recorded program, however, can be expected to meet higher standards of accuracy. For these interviews, the station has time to re-dub.

How high should we set the standards for the German-speaking public’s main sources of information? Are television media forfeiting accuracy for lack of viewer complaint? The importance of the English language in the German speaking world is growing at an increasing rate and misunderstandings can lead to avoidable problems.

Accuracy in the news has to take precedence over ease of construction in the target language. Those who notice the inaccuracy shake their heads, but they, of course, are not the ones affected by it.

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