Madonna and the Hierarchy of Translation

In America, is it is not considered to be mentally ill when a woman advances on her prey in a discotheque with hardy cocktails present… – Madonna (sort of)

When I was in Europe this Christmas, I spent a lot of time thinking about the hierarchy of translation (I know, I’m deep like that). Visiting popular tourist spots, I was thrilled when information was translated into multiple languages. Since the only two German words I could recognize with any consistency were “cheese” and “shark,” English text and cues were immensely helpful. But, I noticed something:

Often, the English translations weren’t very good. The text was understandable, but incorrect grammar and incomplete sentences were common and often the structure was just “off.” Why? The English text was a translation of the German.

That is the hierarchy of translation. When you create something in one language, and then translate it into another, you end up with a primary/dominant text and a secondary/subordinate text.* And unless you are an absolute master at translations, the subordinate text is never as good.

When I worked in Canada, this was a problem. Not only were French translations difficult to find in English-speaking Ontario, but when they were, they were often “unnatural” sounding. Believe me, my French-speaking friends always pointed it out.

It’s grammatically correct, but no one actually talks like that…

So here’s the experiment I’ve always wanted to try. What if, instead of writing an exhibit guide in English and then translating it into French (or vice versa), we wrote two independent guides – giving an English author and a French author were given the same big idea, themes, goals and objectives, but then allowing them to write their text free from the constraints of the other language? Could you produce multiple resources that complemented, but were not dependent upon, each other? What similarities and what differences would arise, and how would audiences respond?

Have you encountered the hierarchy of translation before? Does your institution provide resources in multiple languages? How are they created?

Need more proof that the hierarchy of translation can lead to trouble? Madonna, by way of a Hungarian newspaper, by way of British comedians French & Saunders, shows us how confusing (and hilarious) it can become.

*I’ve also heard arguments against direct translations that claim the process of translation not only subordinates a language, but subordinates everyone who speaks that language. And interesting point to consider, especially in multi-lingual communities.

3 thoughts on “Madonna and the Hierarchy of Translation

  1. An interesting take on the translation theme is when companies make subtitles for foreign films, or more specifically, when companies subtitle Japanese anime. They tend to change things with the expectation that their audience cannot use context clues; eg, over-explaining, or simply removing and replacing key words and phrases. When fans (illegally) collect a group of dedicated translators and re-sub an anime, they tend to do it more true to the content given, and will define key, untranslatable words with footnotes. The drawback is when some fan subtitlists don’t have a final check to simply go through and tidy up the grammar and flow. It is two differing approaches that produce different results.


    • I wonder if the assumption that audiences won’t follow context is based around culture – e.g. that audiences from different cultures just won’t have the same reference points – or if companies are just really underestimating their audiences. I also wonder if the different approaches make the content more accessible to different audiences. If you’re an anime fan, the fan-based translations might be more appealing. But if you’re new to the genre and Japanese culture, maybe the more simplified translations work better as an entry point into the genre.


  2. I have noticed in CD liner notes given in several languages (English, French, German, and Spanish being the usual) that the translations aren’t always word-for-word, and sometimes aren’t “related.” It seems to work…but then, look sometime at an English translation of the French words to “O Canada!”


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