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Too funny for words: How to translate humor in multilingual content

One of the biggest problems facing polyglots and translators is also one of the funniest: understanding and translating humor in multiple languages. It can be an infuriating challenge, but what makes it so difficult?

Punchline problems

Picture this: you’re with a group of friends speaking your second language. You’re following the conversation perfectly well… until someone makes a quip and they all explode with laughter. You’re left stupefied, puzzling over what was just said as you try to determine what they found so funny.

Sound familiar? You’re not alone. And it’s not just you, I promise. It’s just that no matter how many irregular verbs you memorize, no textbook will impart you with a bilingual sense of humor.

Humor is one of the hardest things to learn in a second language.

Just smile, laugh, and pretend you got the joke.

When it comes to translation, this issue is magnified. If you’re translating any text that intends to entertain, chances are it includes a joke or two. Magazine articles, advertising copy, literary works… all of these formats use humor in one way or another. In any of them, a bit of clever wordplay or a witty cultural reference can pose a monumental challenge. How do you preserve the same sense of humor with different words, for an audience with a different background?

Here are some of the most common kinds of linguistic humor, and the difficulties they pose.

Wordplay

In this case, the source of the problem is pretty obvious. If a joke is based entirely on the words that compose it, it’s pretty hard to get the same idea across using completely different words. As a translator, your best bet is to think of similar words in the target language that can be combined in an equally clever way.

First of all, determine the strategy the source text is using. Is it alliteration? A pun? Does it take advantage of a word with two different meanings? Once you understand the structure of the joke, you can start formulating a new one in the target language. It’s not easy, but with a little creativity and some linguistic liberty, you can make multilingual miracles happen.

Rhymes

Maybe this is technically a type of wordplay, but it’s tough enough to deserve its own subheading. Rhyming exists in all languages, of course, but by no means are rhyming pairs in one language equivalent to those in another. If you really want to turn in the best possible translation, you’ll have to find your inner poet… and your thesaurus.

The simplest strategy is to think of as many synonyms as possible for the words in question, until you find two that rhyme. Sometimes it’s impossible, but if you can make it work, you’ll (rightly) feel like a genius.

Making readers laugh out loud at multilingual content is quite a challenge.

Making your audience laugh out loud is harder than you might think.

Want a real life example? While translating a magazine article, I came across this title: “Si de resacas se trata, este cóctel ataca.” This is a simple one-liner referring to the well-known concept of “hair of the dog.” Translated (more or less) literally, it says “If you’ve got a hangover, this cocktail will attack it.” But that’s no fun! Where’s the clever catchy rhyme?

Let’s work through this. What’s another way to say “attack,” or to describe the effect of a good cocktail after a rough night? How about “hits the spot”? Okay, so now we need to find a word that rhymes with “spot”… and lucky for us, there’s already one in the original translation: “got.” Switch around the word order, and you’ve found your solution: “If it’s a hangover you’ve got, this cocktail hits the spot.” Maybe not the most grammatically pleasing sentence, but it preserves the original meaning while maintaining the playful humor of the rhyme. Success!

Cultural references

Every translator—and second language speaker—knows that a good part of understanding a language is understanding its cultural context. This is especially obvious when it comes to jokes. If the punchline refers to a local politician, a historical event, or anything that’s only familiar to a certain community, it’ll be lost on outsiders.

A good translator can preserve humor across cultural and linguistic barriers.

When translated well, humor can transcend cultural and linguistic boundaries.

When translating, sometimes you have to make a tough call. Do you leave the reference as is and hope your audience will get it? Do you change it to a different reference in their own culture that communicates a similar idea? Or do you just get rid of it?

If you’re going for the second option, you’ll need to be very familiar with both the original reference and the culture of the target audience. Try to determine the essence of the joke: why is it funny? This is what you need to maintain with the new reference. Even if you’re talking about a totally different person or event, chances are you can preserve the same meaning.

Then again, there’s the possibility that if you change the reference, the text simply won’t make sense. In that case, you might want to interject an explanation. A parenthetical aside with a couple of choice details can work wonders; this way you preserve the full meaning but give the reader some extra help to understand it.

Lost in translation… found in transcreation

As a second language speaker, you know you’ve really made it once you start understanding and making jokes. Likewise, one sure sign of an expert translation is the effective communication of humor. In fact, this involves more than just translation in the classic sense of the word. It can better be described as transcreation, requiring not only basic bilingualism but also linguistic skill, resourcefulness, and cultural adaptation… and, of course, a sharp sense of humor.


VeraContent is a creative translation and transcreation agency that can help your content reach a wider audience—and maybe even get a laugh out of them!

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American vs. British English – How they’re different and why it matters

Today marks 241 years since the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, and the official birth of the United States. For most Americans that means hot dogs, fireworks, and patriotic pride—but it’s also the perfect opportunity to discuss the linguistic legacy of American independence.

It’s no secret that despite all we have in common, there are vast cultural differences between the US and the UK. That divide is also visible in dialectical variation between American and British English: things like spelling, grammar, and other linguistic details. Although these differences may seem insignificant, in the world of translation and content creation, they’re anything but.

Context counts

Writers and translators based solely in the United States or the United Kingdom may never confront the question of dialect. But for those of us who work in international contexts, it’s vital to distinguish between British and American English, and to be highly familiar with both.

For example, if you’re writing advertising copy for a company promoting its products in the UK, they’ll expect you to follow the conventions of British English. A university recruiting international students, on the other hand, might prefer US English as a universally accepted standard. It all depends on the context. Before you start working with any client, it’s vital to establish which style they want.

Learn the lingo

As a translator, I’m used to switching between English and Spanish—but I’ve found that it’s equally important to know how to juggle different dialects within each. The first time I was asked to write something in British English, I was dumbfounded. I had always known it existed, of course, but I’d never been asked to adopt it as my own voice. What exactly were the differences? And how many were there?

When writing in a non-native dialect, mistakes are inevitable. Always edit your work carefully.

Mistakes are inevitable—edit your work!

Quite a few, as it turns out. But nothing you can’t handle, as long as you’re prepared to treat your non-native dialect the same way you’d treat a foreign language. Learn the differences and do your best to embrace them—the more natural they seem to you, the more natural your writing will seem to the reader.

Dialectical details

So what exactly are the differences? Here are just a few of the most important ones to know.

  • -or vs. -our: This is a classic. Even the most unaware reader can distinguish regional style from just one letter. Examples: color (US) vs. colour (UK), favorite vs. favourite, and behavior vs. behaviour.
  • z vs. s: Another single-letter difference. This one has to do with the suffix used to form transitive verbs meaning “to render or make.” Whereas US English uses “-ize,” UK English uses “-ise.” Examples: optimize vs. optimise, utilize vs. utilise. And remember, this applies to any form of those words as well (utilized vs. utilised).
  • Has vs. has got: When it comes to expressing possession, the line is slightly blurred. In both UK and US English, we can say “I have a dog” or “I’ve got a dog.” But despite the fact that both are correct, you’re much more likely to encounter “has got” in British English, and “has” in American English.
  • Vocabulary: This is far too broad to cover in a single bullet point, but it’s vital to be aware of lexical differences. There are tons of words whose meanings vary depending on the dialect, as well as different words that are used to express the same meaning. My personal favorite is the word “pants.” In US English, pants are what we wear to cover our legs, like jeans or slacks. In UK English, pants are what we wear underneath our trousers—the American equivalent of “underwear.”
  • Period placement: There are several small differences in punctuation usage. US English places a period after abbreviations like “Mr.” and “Ms.” whereas British English does not. British English uses a period to express specific times (10.30) where American English would use a semicolon (10:30). And finally, British English places periods outside quotation marks (“Happy Fourth of July”.) while American English places them within (“Happy Fourth of July.”).
In American English, the convention is to spell words like "colorful" with "or."

American spelling…

In British English, the convention is to spell words like "parlour" with "our."

…and British spelling.

So which is correct?

As you’ve probably already guessed, that’s a trick question. If you have friends from across the pond, you’ve most likely had this debate before. Americans abroad are often subject to (usually) good-natured criticism along the lines of “Speak real English!” Likewise, most Brits have probably been told that they “talk funny” or something of the sort. It’s worth pointing out that British speakers are usually more aware of linguistic differences, since they have greater exposure to American culture than vice versa.

Americans and Brits often argue over dialectical differences.

Linguistic debates have been known to get heated.

Of course, the truth is that there is no “right way” in and of itself. The correct way to say something depends on the context, just like every other linguistic variable does. In casual conversation, it doesn’t matter if you say “learned” or “learnt”: people will know what you mean. But when it comes to professional translation and content creation, the differences do matter. Always make sure you know the target style of each assignment. If it’s unclear what the client wants, pick one style and stick to it—consistency is key.

In general, the most important thing is to keep an open mind and be flexible. Translation and content creation are all about adapting your voice to suit the client’s needs and the audience’s context. The best way to optimize (or optimise) your writing is to adapt it to each and every project and situation you encounter. And when it comes to content, patriotism has no place—leave that for the Fourth of July festivities.


VeraContent is a multilingual content agency providing creative translation and copywriting services. We’re experts at adapting our content to suit your style; whether it’s American or British English.

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A short history of punctuation (and why it’s an essential part of communication)

The tiny dots and dashes sprinkled throughout every piece of writing we read may at first seem trivial, but we often underestimate how vital punctuation is to giving words their intended meaning and communicating effectively. The example often cited to demonstrate this point is “the panda eats, shoots and leaves”. Remove the comma and the sentence changes from sinister to the more informative, “the panda eats shoots and leaves”.

Punctuation is viewed as something necessary for reading comprehension, but this wasn’t always the case. Humans recorded their actions and thoughts in writing long before the invention of punctuation. So how could they possibly decipher the meaning of written documents that provided no indication of where one phrase ended and another began? The answer is actually quite simple: writing simply wasn’t as important back then.

In the past, more emphasis was placed on spoken word. This was especially true in Ancient Greece and Rome where politics centered on verbal debates. It was not until the third century BC that Aristophanes, a librarian living in Alexandria, suggested what would become the first set of punctuation marks. The comma, colon, and periodos were represented by a dot of ink in the middle, bottom, or top of a line respectively. Each mark indicated a different length of pause and was a great aid to readers who, in those days, had to wade through texts multiple times before even hoping to grasp their meaning.

The Bible featured one of the first uses of punctuation

The Bible featured one of the first uses of punctuation

Marks such as these soon became popular with orators and actors, who used them as speaking cues to improve their speeches or to give better performances. The popularity of punctuation was in flux over the years that followed, though, with some choosing to use Aristophanes’ rules where others rejected them. The copying and distribution of the Christian Bible was punctuation’s own saving grace. Punctuation marks were included to help people read the Bible aloud, and since the book was widely distributed across a large geographic area, the marks became normalized and were more regularly incorporated in written works.

Like any aspect of language, punctuation has evolved over time. Languages that originally did not include any form of punctuation, such as Arabic and Urdu, began to include these markings due to Western influence. The usage and appearance of punctuation continues to evolve. At one point, the interrobang, though short-lived, was introduced to express exclamation and question. French author Hervé Basin made the argument to include six new punctuation marks, including the point d’ironie (irony point), the point d’amour (love point), the point de conviction (certitude point), the point d’autorité (authority point), the point d’acclamation (acclamation point), and the point de doute (doubt point) in an attempt to approximate the full spoken meaning of language in writing. Today, some would say that emojis could be classified as a new form of punctuation, in the sense that they follow their own set of grammatical rules and help add meaning.

Variance in punctuation is not limited to time, but is also quite noticeable across geographic and linguistic boundaries. Different languages have unique punctuation marks they use to convey a specific meaning. For example, Spanish and Catalan use inverted question marks and exclamation points at the beginning of sentences to clarify the tone of the sentence. The Armenian language uses a colon to represent a full-stop where English would use a period. In Arabic, Urdu, and Persian, which are all written from right to left, reversed question marks and commas are used. Japanese has round, unfilled periods.

The diversity of punctuation across languages is especially relevant in the context of translation. Punctuation has the power to give the same words written in the same order completely different meanings (like the panda sentence from before).

Punctuation mishaps

Punctuation can be the defining factor in whether or not you give your dear old grandmother a heart attack.

Therefore, it becomes incredibly important for the translator to incorporate punctuation effectively in order to convey the intended meaning of the translated work.  Avoiding this miscommunication when translating requires doing the necessary research to determine the punctuation differences between the source language and the target language. 

Far from being negligible marks placed behind letters and words, punctuation is an integral part of language. Punctuation, in the context of a sentence, becomes a unit of meaning without which we simply wouldn’t be able to grasp the true meaning as the writer intended. In the words of Edgar Allen Poe, “the writer who neglects punctuation, or mispunctuates, is liable to be misunderstood.”


Concerned your punctuation isn’t quite up to scratch? Let VeraContent’s dedicated proofreading team take a look at your content before you give the wrong impression.

7 tips for working with a translation agency

Translation agencies are here to help you. We take pride in what we do and we’re always looking to improve. But getting the best possible results takes teamwork. Only you know what you need from your content, so offering clear and concise instructions will only make the finished product better. Here are some simple steps to make working with a translation agency as efficient and effective as possible.

1. Check the translation agency does what you need

If you don’t do a little research before you choose the best translation agency to handle your project, you might hit a roadblock right off the bat. No matter how diverse the background of a translation agency, no company will be able to accept a job in every language or every type of document. An agency’s website will list the languages they translate, what kinds of work they specialize in, and often a brief sampling of their active clientele. Don’t ignore this information. If you’re not sure if a company can accommodate you, it never hurts to ask. But ruling out total nonstarters will save time for everyone.

2. Introduce yourself

So you’ve chosen a translation agency you’d like to work with. You probably know a little about them from your research process. Now it’s time to help them get to know you. Your translators don’t need to be experts about your business; but it’s a good idea to give them a general sense of who you are. This will allow them to tailor content to your desired audience. They can also get a head start on reading up on specialized vocabulary they might need for your field. Some translation agencies will have more time than others to devote to building a relationship with you, but any good company will want at least a little familiarity.

3. Don’t do more than you need to

If you’re looking to work with a translation agency, you’re already on the right track. You’ve recognized that even if you have some knowledge of your target language, you’re not a professional; translating requires more skills than just language proficiency. This all means that one of the best things you can do for your translator (and yourself) is to let them do their work. It might seem like attempting your own initial translation will save time, but more often than not it makes things harder. If your second-language writing is unclear, the translator will be spending time untangling and rewriting it. A well-written text in the original language, on the other hand, provides much more useful information and can be translated in one smooth process. Even if you do feel your initial translation is fairly strong, send the original text too, in case certain words or phrases need clarification.

4. Be honest about deadlines

One of the primary negotiations you’ll have with your translation agency will be to do with deadlines. I say negotiations, because your motivations will often be different— you’ll want content translated as soon as possible, and your translators will have schedules packed with more than just your project.

Meeting translation deadlines

Don’t create urgency for no reason if you want a quality translation

However, deadlines can be worked out smoothly as long as everyone is honest. Your translators will be honest about how quickly they can finish a project without sacrificing their quality standards. You should be similarly reflective. If you know you need something done sooner than the deadline you ask for, you’ll be at risk of stress and trouble unless it just happens to get done early. On the flip side, if you demand it get done right away just for the sake of having it in hand, the product might not be as good as it could be, and that translator might be less happy to work with you again. When it comes to deadlines, open communication is key to positive relations.

5. Have a clear brand message

You can leave most of the work to your translation agency, but there are a few questions that only you can answer. For example, often in our multilingual marketing work here at VeraContent, we encounter names of companies, programs, events or products. It often doesn’t occur to us that even branded names such as these are not always language-neutral. Many such names involve words that will be meaningless when taken out of the culture that speaks the original language. For example, if you’re a Spanish soap company with a line called LujoPlus, buyers in your area will understand that those soaps are your more upscale options. But prospective customers in England won’t know “lujo” is Spanish for “luxury”.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. You might decide you like the sound of the original name enough to leave it as is and let the meaning go. Or, you might prefer to pick a translated name and use that in English marketing. The important thing is that you make a decision and stay consistent. Things will get confusing for all involved if your product is called LujoPlus in some promotions and Luxury Plus in others. Your translator will be happy to use whichever terms you prefer and handle the consistency for you. Just be sure to tell them how you want it.

6. Provide clues when research might be needed

Research is part of a translator’s job. Any time we come across something we aren’t familiar with, we try to get the gist before translating around it. This ensures we aren’t misunderstanding crucial details. It’s not a client’s responsibility to explicate their content, but a helpful note here and there, especially for niche references, could save your translator a lot of time. If your text talks a lot about an acronym, for example, add a quick note of what the letters stand for (especially since most acronyms will change from language to language).

7. Give feedback if you’re partnering long-term

Your translation agency wants you to be happy with your results. Like any kind of writing, translators rely on feedback to improve the work they produce. A lot of this feedback will come from internal editing at the translation agency— any final product you see will have been passed around and carefully polished by the team. That process will ensure the language sounds good and is free of errors.

Giving feedback on translations

Feedback is an important part of building a relationship with a translation agency

But there are always issues of personal preference. Only you can judge if something has come out exactly how you wanted it. So if you’re cultivating an ongoing partnership with a company, let them know if there are things you’d like done differently. A good translator will be happy to make adjustments to content style or formatting of so it best serves your needs.

Of course, it will be up to each individual translator to ask for what they need to make your translation top notch. But having these points in mind is a great start to getting the most out of your collaboration. Good professional translators care as much as you do about producing a clear and effective final product. The more you can work together, the easier it will be to get there.


Find out if VeraContent is the right translation agency for you. Get in touch and tell us about your project for a no-obligation chat about what we can offer.

8 tips for a quality translation

In our ever-globalizing world, companies need quality translations and reliable translators. It takes a variety of translators who specialize in various major languages to ensure an idea can be communicated around the world.

The field of translation is growing every day. Quality translators pay attention to detail, work patiently and have a firm grasp of both the target language and the source language.

Here are eight tips that any translator can use to ensure a quality translation.

1. Translate one text at a time

When translating a text, try to dedicate your time to that text only. Good translators tend to fixate on a text, devoting all of their attention to it until they produce a quality translation.

This method allows the translator to dive into the writing of the source text and become familiar with the voice of the author. This tip is particularly useful when translating literature or dialogue.

A character, setting or action is often presented to us through language. An author uses this carefully chosen language to give us clues about a character’s nuances and defining qualities. Immersing yourself in the source text is particularly helpful when trying to replicate those nuances in another language.

2. Clear up any ambiguities

Ambiguities in the text make it particularly hard to make a quality translation. If you come across a sentence that can be understood in more ways than one, the translation may need to be interpreted. Sometimes the translator has to make their best educated guess as to the author’s intended meaning.

via GIPHY

Any ambiguities could lead to a misunderstanding and consequently a mistranslation. So be extra careful to make sure your interpretation is not contradicted in any other parts of the text and best fits the context.

If the source author is not available to clear up these ambiguities, it is the translator’s job to professionally analyze the text and choose the meaning they think best fits the context of the writing.

3. Choose your register

The register of a piece of writing has to do with how the author uses language to achieve a certain level of formality. A Buzzfeed article has a very different register than an article from the Wall Street Journal. Vocabulary, tone and grammar help determine a text’s register.

Switching between registers is very important for a translator. When translating a text the final product should have the same register as the original. If the text reads very formal in the source language and the translated text is full of abbreviations and slang, chances are the translator did not write with the same register.

The small details are usually what determines a text’s register. Simply adding a “y’all” to a text adds a level of informality and gives off a conversational tone. It is important to include some indicator of that tone in the translation, even if there is no direct translation for an abbreviated “you all.”

4. Use your tools wisely

Translators are only as good as their tools. While there are many great online translators and quality dictionaries, a quality translation should not solely rely on one source.

Google Translate

Online tools are a great help for translators, but they still haven’t replaced the human touch

Quality unabridged dictionaries are a necessity in translation. However, not all dictionaries are created equal. Make sure you know the best dictionaries for your target language, such as Collins or Oxford Dictionary for English, or the DRAE for Spanish.

Online tools like WordReference.com or Linguee.com provide great platforms to discuss usages and grammar in your target language. Combining these tools, and finding the tool that best solves your particular translation problem, will help you end up with a quality translation.

5. Know your character set

Translators should have a good grasp of the target language’s punctuation. Not all languages use the same rules for punctuation.

A quality translation includes correct punctuation, not just well-translated ideas. Common punctuation mistakes include making mistakes in quoting in various languages, using inverted commas or question marks, or including the correct accent marks.

Paying attention to punctuation shows that a translator doesn’t overlook the details.

6. Cultural adaptation

A problem arises when you try to translate an idea that will only be understood by a specific audience. The Harry Potter series has been translated into over sixty different languages from the original British English version.

The translation of these books was met with a variety of obstacles, as they are full of non-existent words, names with more than one meaning and alliteration. For example, how would you translate “muggle” or “Severus Snape”?

However, the cultural references posed an even bigger challenge for translators. When J.K. Rowling mentions “figgy pudding” in the book, a translator has a few options to choose from.

Assuming the target language does not know what “figgy pudding” is, the author can omit the idea altogether, make the idea applicable to the target audience, or make it general so anyone will be able to understand. The translator can also leave “figgy pudding” untranslated to show that while it has a place in British English it is not common in other countries.

Cultural adaptation allows the translator some creative license to modify, add or delete ideas so the text can be understood by the target audience.

7. Be faithful to the text

One of the most important aspects of translation is staying true to the text. A quality translation replicates the ideas presented into the target language. Things are not added unnecessarily or omitted when the thought is hard to translate.

A good translator stays true to the text by picking the correct register and clearly understanding the idea the source text is trying to express.

8. Always keep your ears open!

Last, but certainly not least, good translators constantly listen to the language around them. Translators asks themselves, “does this sound natural?”

One of the best ways to sound natural when translating into a target language is immersing yourself in the language and listening to the natives.

If your dictionary presents you with two options for a word, go with the one you hear used most. It is awkward reading something you would never say yourself, so keep those ears open and absorb the language around you. Not only will this help your language skills, but it will help you create a quality translation as well.


VeraContent uses a range of tools and a dedicated team of language experts to offer our clients the best possible translation service.

Language is power: how our words reflect and affect our world

How often do you stop to think about the ways in which words affect the world around you? Probably not very often. It’s easy to take language for granted. We see, hear, and speak it constantly. We use it to communicate, to understand, and to think. It is the very basis of the complex society in which we live. And yet this immense importance often goes unnoticed. Language blends into the background precisely as a result of its ubiquity.

Of course, those of us who work in the field of translation have no choice but to pay attention. We make our living by thinking about language—not only in terms of its structure and style, but also on a much deeper level. Translation is more than just changing words from one language to another. It requires an understanding not only of the literal meaning of each text, but also of its cultural context, its target audience, and the intentions behind it. Because of this, translating often brings to light the many ways in which the language we use reflects the world in which we live, as well as its power to influence it.

A reflection of history

Let’s begin with a broad example. In recent centuries, English has become what many call a “global language.” Some even go so far as to predict that it’s on its way to becoming the “universal language,” meaning that one day everyone across the world will use it to communicate. When it comes to translation, it’s easy to see the traces of these trends. More and more companies, publications, and media outlets are making the effort to have their content translated from various other languages to English, knowing that this will allow them to reach a wider audience or clientele.

In other words, English has power: financial power, political power, and cultural power. Across the world, people who speak it often enjoy greater opportunities and options than those who do not. Companies who utilize it are able to expand internationally to an extent that might not otherwise be possible. We could spend hours discussing the advantages and disadvantages of this reality. But the fact is that right now English is arguably the most powerful language in the world.

But why? Why English, and not Spanish, or Swahili, or Cantonese? The answer also has to do with power. Language reflects culture, and in this case the power of English reflects the power of certain countries. Until relatively recently, the United Kingdom held the reins to the world’s largest empire, with colonies scattered across the globe. Their superior industrial capacity meant that they were able to conquer new territories and impose their own cultural norms, laws, religion… and language. As a result, English found its way into nearly every corner of the earth.

British Empire English global power

The British Empire in 1907 (British possessions are shown in pink)

Language in the age of globalization

Today, of course, the UK no longer has a global empire. But one of its former colonies has arguably overtaken its one-time ruler as the new world leader. The United States may not be considered an empire by traditional terms, but its enormous political, economic, and technological power has given it a similar level of influence.

It doesn’t take the physical conquest of territory or the intentional imposition of English to change linguistic habits. The forces of globalization, often skewed in favor of the United States, are indirectly influencing people around the world to learn English for their own personal gain.

learn English international education

English is becoming increasingly valued in classrooms around the world.

In other words, the former power of the United Kingdom and the current power of the United States have endowed English with a power of its own, which then reinforces the global influence of the countries where it’s spoken. Whether or not it will one day become truly universal is up for debate, but there’s no denying that it’s powerful.

The power of translation

So we know that language has power on a global scale… but what about the individual level? Every word that we read in a magazine article, on a website, or in a company newsletter can affect our perceptions and influence our actions. Translators have a unique perspective not only on how language reflects larger societal trends, but also on its influence on individual people. In fact, this small-scale power is something that translators must consider on a daily basis. It’s an integral part of one of the greatest challenges that we face in our work.

Professional and effective translation requires the maintenance of a precarious balance between preserving original meaning and adapting texts to suit new audiences. As translators, we have a responsibility to understand what the writer wants to communicate; not only the literal meaning of his or her words, but also the intentions and assumptions behind them.

However, we also have a responsibility to the reader to provide them with a text that makes sense from their own frame of reference. We must consider the preexisting knowledge and beliefs of the target audience members, who speak a different language from the original writer and therefore exist in a different linguistic and cultural context. In order to create a successful translation, we must adapt the original text to fit this new context, often changing it drastically or even removing some parts altogether.

Every word matters

This means that translators not only have enormous responsibility, but also an incredible amount of power. The choices we make when translating have a direct impact on how each text is understood, and therefore on how it influences each person who reads it. Language is just one of many lenses that refracts meaning on its way from the writer to the reader. As translators, it’s our job to direct and shape this refraction. In order to do it well, we must simultaneously apprehend, adapt, alter, and anticipate the meaning and effects of our words.

So next time you read a sign, scribble a note, or verbalize an idea, take a moment to reflect on everything those words represent. And remember: just as the power of translation should never be underestimated, neither should the power of language itself.


VeraContent’s dedicated team of translators and linguists offers a range of translation and multilingual copywriting services to make sure our clients’ words pack the right punch.

Inside Game of Thrones: the origins of the Dothraki language

The other day I came across a Dothraki blog hosting a competition for the best Haiku written in the Dothraki language. That’s right, Dothraki, one of the fictional languages of the popular series Game of Thrones. People are writing poems in the language of the horse lords of Essos. But what are the origins of this fantasy language?

A Song of Ice and Fire, the fantasy series invented by George R.R. Martin, has recently been adapted into the HBO television series Game of Thrones. Martin had a large vision for his invented world of Westeros and Essos. He imagined making a world so rich it couldn’t be adapted to the screen. That is, until HBO agreed to produce the series without compromising Martin’s epic vision.

Creating the Dothraki language was just one element of shaping a nuanced fantasy world. Martin had the larger dream of making a world that could stand up to Tolkien’s Middle Earth. 

Dothraki language

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To achieve this same level of depth, Martin realized he had to learn more about his own creation of Westeros and Essos. He began drawing maps and creating family trees in an effort to keep the characters straight and avoid contradicting himself. He also began piecing together the Dothraki and High Valyrian languages.

Who created Dothraki?

Martin includes fragments of the Dothraki language in chapters of A Song of Ice and Fire. The extent of the language’s vocabulary consisted mostly of proper nouns: names of towns, rulers, and customs particular to the Dothraki people. For example, “Adakhakileki,” meaning “The Cannibals,” is the name of a ruined city. “Vaes Tolorro” translates to “The City of Bones.” “Rhaesh Andahli,” meaning “The land of the Andals,” is the Dothraki name for Westeros.

While this limited development of the language served for the purposes of the novels, the HBO version (also adapted by George R.R. Martin) needed a fully formed version of the Dothraki Language.

Dothraki language

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HBO sent out a job offer for the official creator of the Dothraki language. David J. Peterson, a linguist who had perfected the art of language creation through his extensive studies, entered the winning proposal. He expanded the existing words and phrases penned by Martin into a learnable language of over 1,700 words.

Peterson used George R.R. Martin’s improvised phrases to establish a grammatical structure. Once he established the grammar he had the task of coming up with the thousands of words a Dothraki warrior of Westeros might find himself using. What’s more, the actors had to be able to pronounce their lines. This extensive proposal deemed David J. Peterson the first master of the Dothraki language.

Is it learnable?

Amazingly enough, Peterson was so thorough in his creation of the Dothraki language that anyone can learn it. The fact that people have actually attempted to read and write in this fictional language shows the hardcore dedication of fantasy fans. But it also speaks to Peterson’s mastery of language structure. Peterson describes Dothraki’s sound as a mix between Spanish and Arabic.

David J. Peterson is now the official translator of all Game of Thrones lines in Dothraki and High Valerian. In fact, he’s the only translator. But even he has to refer to his Dothraki dictionary.  

The Dothraki language is described as guttural and harsh: a true representation of the Dothraki people. Just as any language reflects its speakers, Martin wanted the Dothraki language to have just the right sound. David J. Peterson used what he knew of the Dothraki society and paired it with his extensive language skills.  

Inside the Dothraki language

The grammar structure has similarities to English. It has 23 consonants and three vowels. Verbs can be conjugated in past, present, and future, as well as two different types of imperatives (the Dothraki give lots of commands), and the verbs must agree with the speaker or number. There are also rules for word order and sentence structure.

David J. Peterson did a great job of using the story’s plot to make decisions about the language. For example, the Dothraki language does not have a written component. This detail fits with what we know about the Dothraki: they are mainly a nomadic people and have not developed much of the technology of city life.

             

The Dothraki vocabulary is reminiscent of the culture. For example, the Dothraki language has three words that mean “to kill” and no word for “thank you.”  Three versions of the verb “to kill” reflects the Dothraki’s tendency for war. Similarly, their absence of the word “thank you” speaks to their general lack of appreciation.

Why include fictional languages?

Why did George R.R. Martin and the producers of Game of Thrones opt to expand Dothraki into a learnable language? Today, consumers of entertainment are ruthless. Even the smallest inconsistencies are highlighted with screenshots, memes, instant replays and “15 cinematic mistakes you may have missed” articles on Buzzfeed.  

Dothraki language

In short, even consumers of fantasy want to be immersed in a world that can stand up to reality. Advances in cinematic technology means a director can shoot a rocket blasting into space. Monsters can exist, and they can look more life-like than we had imagined. George R.R. Martin’s world attracted devoted and attentive fans. To satisfy those fans, this multilingual epic didn’t just need special effects, they needed a linguist.

Game of Throne’s extensive fan base and high ratings speak to the quality of George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy. His themes of war, power, and sex are universally recognized, turning a medieval tale into something larger. The creation of the Dothraki and High Valyrian languages by George R.R. Martin and David J. Peterson added the element that turned a great story into a captivating fantasy world.


At the time of writing, VeraContent does not offer multilingual content services in Dothraki. But our team of expert linguists can help bridge the communication gap in more than 20 languages.

Three ways translation technology is making sci-fi real

We’ve already talked about about why machine translations aren’t reliable enough to replace us humans. But good professional translators know that translation technology isn’t the enemy—it’s actually an asset to us. It handles the grunt work in big swaths of text and frees us up to wrestle with juicier issues, like why there isn’t a more satisfying Spanish translation for “fancy.”

So new advances in language technology are good news for translators, the companies who hire them, and sci-fi geeks alike. If you’ve ever dreamed of living in a world of futuristic translation gadgets, read on to see how that world might be closer than you think.

Neural Machine Translation

The latest thing in machine translation is NMT: Neural Machine Translation. Until recently, the dominant model for translation technology has been SMT, Statistical Machine Translation. SMT works by deducing from a large databank what the most likely counterpart is for a source phrase. This is quite a useful model, yet like all robot builders, machine translation researchers are continually striving to create artificial intelligence—a machine that can think like a person does. The AI apocalypse isn’t upon us yet, but NMT is a step closer. NMT systems look at each sentence as a whole rather than a string of words, and they adapt and learn from vast databases of sample text.

machine translator

VeraContent doesn’t look like this yet.

These features allow them to have a little more common sense about translations. For example, NMT programs are able to produce equivalent-meaning translations of idioms, where an SMT system would just spit out a bewildering word-for-word translation. So a non-English speaker could get the drift that a story you heard “through the grapevine” came to you as a rumor and not in a vineyard. Google Translate adopted this technology last year, and it improves accuracy far beyond just figures of speech.

NMT was put to the test in a very unconventional tournament held in Seoul on February 21. Four professional human translators faced off against NMT programs from Google, South Korea’s Naver Inc., and Systran International, a translation tech company. The competitors translated a series of articles from Korean to English and vice versa. When judges tallied the scores, the humans averaged 25 out of 30 points for accuracy, while no machine broke 15. So those of us who trade in language don’t need to worry just yet. Still, the progress is impressive.

Instant interpreter earpieces

From Star Trek to Douglas Adams, many a sci-fi hero has enjoyed a device that lets them chat naturally with alien interlocutors. Present-day earthlings are only meeting other humans, but we still sometimes suffer language barriers that we’d like an instant fix for. So you may have heard buzz about Waverly Lab’s real-time interpretation earpiece.

This little earpiece, the Pilot, isn’t actually a different fundamental technology than machine translation. It works by linking with the company’s text translation app, and thus is of course at risk of the same inaccuracy. But eliminating the smartphone screen as a clunky middleman lets people communicate more naturally. Plus, it’s just plain cool to have a robot dubbing the world in front of you. The video on the gadget’s Indiegogo page certainly makes you want to get one and play with it. It shows the company’s English-speaking boss and a French-speaking woman smiling with wonder as their need for hand gestures and guessing suddenly falls away.

translation earpiece

Your key to the world could be even smaller   than this.

The earpiece comes in pairs so you can let your conversation partner borrow one, which is smart, since understanding someone doesn’t do much good if you aren’t able to respond. You can preorder the Pilot for $249; not exorbitant for a serious world traveler, but not quite cheap enough to have every man, woman and child linked up to the Tower of Babel. But if Waverly Lab’s earpiece is successful, competitors will no doubt be working around the clock to catch up. That means the market could be in the buyer’s favor before we know it. And if you want to sound extra-savvy about it at your next dinner party, don’t let the headlines about “translation earpieces” confuse you. Pros would call the Pilot a machine interpreter, since it works with spoken language rather than written text.

The Rosetta Project

But what if the robots do take over, ultimately fail to maintain society, and plunge our whole history into obscurity? How will the life forms that inherit Earth decode our writings if most of our languages have gone out of use?

That’s the issue being tackled by The Rosetta Project, the brainchild of the Long Now Foundation for forward thinking. Actually, the linguists on the team aren’t just worried about a far-off total extinction scenario. Lesser-known languages are falling out of use even as we speak. The Rosetta Project bases its concept on the Rosetta Stone, the famous Egyptian artifact engraved with the same text in Greek, an Egyptian print called demotic, and hieroglyphs. Because the people who found it understood Greek, they were able to compare the versions and finally comprehend the hieroglyphic system.

rosetta stone

The Rosetta Stone.

The Rosetta Project is setting out to create a similar artifact, but with the benefits of intentionality and modern technology. They have created the Rosetta Disk, “a three-inch diameter nickel disk with nearly 14,000 pages of information microscopically etched onto its surface.” The project members believe that while computers might one day be obsolete, most cultures find their way to some sort of microscope. Thus if they found the durable, decay-resistant disk, they would likely notice its markings and get a closer look. When they did, they’d discover the key to more than 1,000 languages.

This powerful archive will also be available to those of us living in the present. The full linguistic record will be available online and in book form. Or, if you’re a fashion-forward language geek with $1,000 to spare, you can have a necklace with a reduced-size Rosetta Disk inside. We recommend being buried with it, for the chance that your skeleton could lead archaeologists to all of human knowledge. They might even name it after you.

Nothing beats the usefulness and versatility of learning a new language. But few of us have time to master even one, let alone the full gamut of human speech. In our global world, everyone at some point finds themselves in a situation where a precocious robot could really help them out. And for those of us who trade in multilingual content, advances in linguistic technology make our work smoother, better, and less of a headache all around. Keep your eyes peeled for new gadgets on the market—you might be amazed what they come up with next.


The future of translation is right around the corner. But the assurance of a translation service offered by a dedicated team of transcreation experts is hard to beat for now. VeraContent will be here for all your multilingual content needs in the present and the future.

Multilingual films: what goes on behind the scenes

The film industry is a fascinating field for translators. It allows for creativity, research, entertainment and growth. But what challenges present themselves along the way? And who is involved in the process besides the translator?

Films translated into other languages can either be dubbed in the target language or shown in the original version with subtitles, and both options come with their own unique challenges and solutions for the linguist behind the curtain.

Dubbing: I get by with a little help from my friends

Dubbing, in this context, means taking recordings in another language and playing them over the original audio of a film or video. In doing this, it’s not just the text that matters but also what will happen to that text in the final product.

One example is choosing the right sounds. In English, if we are surprised, we might make the sounds, “Oh!” or “Ah!”, whereas in Spanish it might sound more like “Ay!” or “Uy!” Even animal sounds are described differently in different languages—while in English we might say a dog goes “woof,” in Spanish it goes “guau,” in Japanese, “wan,” in Dutch, “blaf,” in Romanian, “ham,” and in Korean, “meong!”

Another challenge is considering what the character will look and sound like when saying the translated lines. If you’ve ever watched a dubbed film and known what the actor’s real voice sounds like, it might have been hard to suspend your disbelief. Of course, there’s no perfect solution for this problem, because not all actors are polyglots (but wouldn’t it be awesome if they were?!). Instead, to lend the viewers’ imaginations a hand, nearly all famous actors and actresses are assigned one person to dub them in each language—essentially forever. For instance, Johnny Depp is always dubbed in Spanish by Luis Posada:

Notice how the voice is always the same?

So if the actor is famous, translators will not only be given the script along with the original footage, but they’ll also know what the voice will sound like reading the final product. This way, they have all the resources they need to come up with the best possible translation.

Who decides on these voices, anyway? Let’s take an extreme example. Disney’s original animated film Frozen broke records for being translated into a whopping 41 languages.

Disney actually has a specialist on board (which isn’t uncommon) who is in charge of finding the perfect voices for every language. For Frozen, Rick Dempsey, the Senior Vice President of Creative for Disney Character Voices International, was tasked with finding 40 local equivalents to Idina Menzel—no small feat.

But what does this have to do with translation, you may ask? Dempsey—and others who specialize in internationalizing films—face many of the same obstacles as us linguists. In broad terms, his job is to take a message, a feeling, a performance, and localize it in a different culture.

“Idina has one of the best voices, period. Not just in terms of her smooth tone, but also the warmth when she hits the lower end,” Dempsey said. “However, in certain territories—Taiwan, Cantonese—the voice might want to be thin because that’s part of the culture.”

Check out the final products, back-to-back:

Subtitling: time is money

On the other hand, subtitling comes with its own unique challenges. Constraints in time and space take the top spot; although some languages are less succinct than others—Spanish is some 30 percent more verbose than English—linguists must create translations that have more or less the same amount of characters. And that amount of characters is pretty much set across the board; most industry experts follow what they call the “six second rule,” which means most viewers can comfortably read the standard two-line subtitle in six seconds.

Another factor in subtitling is the art of navigating grammar, spelling and style with the end goal of reflecting accents, connotation and context. A perfect example of this is Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a film known for being peppered with German, French and Italian in addition to its primary language, English.

Paloma Guridi, a translator who helped with pronunciation on the set of the movie, told us that sometimes the actors didn’t even speak the language their lines were in—for example, Christoph Waltz didn’t know Italian. But since his character was supposed to be fluent, he practiced diligently, and the subtitles read as a perfect translation into English.

Brad Pitt, however, had to portray a character who was pretending to know Italian, so he learned his lines and then purposefully laid on a thick Southern American accent. That accent was reflected in the subtitles. For example, when he stutters to say, “Sí, correcto,” the subtitle reads, “Yes, ‘er, correct.”

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Films that switch between languages within the original version itself are especially challenging, requiring expert linguists on the scene to provide assistance. Paloma says Inglourious Basterds had “a large German team, a lot of Americans and then some French actors… so it was a very multilingual shoot.” And a lot of faith was put in these natives, as Tarantino doesn’t speak French or German.

Is it all fun and games, though? Alicia Camino, an audiovisual translator for Disney, tells us the pros and cons. “My favorite part is how creative it can be, adapting a culture, the humor, sometimes rhymes, coming up with new words or names… and thanks to this I’m quite up to date with slang and tendencies, especially from the US.” The cons? “I can’t choose what I translate or proofread but sometimes I’m laughing while working, sometimes crying… and when you get something boring it can be hell. When you’re watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse for hours on end, your brain goes numb.”

Typically, however, the film industry is an unpredictable and fast-paced field, and translators aren’t exempt from the chaos. But if you’re looking to specialize in something that will always keep you on your toes, it could be right up your alley.


It’s amazing how much language expertise is required behind the scenes of your favorite movies. We haven’t been called to the set of the latest Hollywood blockbuster yet, but VeraContent’s language services cover pretty much anything a multilingual media production could need.

The tricky translation of quedar(se)

The aim of a good translation is typically not to improve the writing or add their own touch of style. A good translator will generate a final product that is as close to the original meaning as possible by using the same register, punctuation, and syntax. The role of a translator is specific and clear: stay true to the text.

Examining the Spanish verb quedar shows us how the nuances of language make translation such a complex task. For this single verb alone, I have found 10 different meanings in English. Verbs like this exist in many languages. It is important for translators to identify these verbs and become familiar with their many uses.

Quedar(se) generally means “to be left” or “to stay.” However, Spanish speakers manipulate this word to mean quite a variety of things. In Spain you may hear it used as slang for joking around or even to tell a friend their haircut isn’t so flattering. You’ll hear it used to mean “hang out” as well as “to be.” Here’s a guide to make sure you’re translating quedar correctly.

Quedan dos exámenes.

This use of quedar translates to “to be left. This sentence reads, “There are two exams left. This usage can refer to abstract nouns as well, such as time or energy.

quedar

Nuestra casa queda cerca de la tienda.

Queda in this sentence does not mean “to be left,” “to stay,” or “to keep.” In fact, it would be easy for a translator to overcomplicate this sentence without proper knowledge of the usage of quedar. In this example the verb simply means “to be,” or “to be located.” This sentence translates to, “Our house is close to the store.”

Cuánto queda para Barcelona?

Here queda is being used in a similar way as in our first example, “Quedan dos examenes,” in the sense that it is identifying how much of something is left. However, in question form this sentence translates to “How much further is it to Barcelona?” Further, here, indicates time or distance left.

Tenemos que quedarnos en esta calle.

The verb quedar in this sentence is used as a reflexive verb. Use reflexive when the subject and the object of the sentence reference the same thing. This sentence translates to, “We have to stay on this street.” In this sentence quedar is translated to “stay” or “to continue.”

quedar

Puedes quedarte el cambio.

This sentence translates to: “You can keep the change.” This is also a reflexive use of the verb quedar, and is used to indicate possession. This phrase is sure to score you points with any bartender or waitress.

Se quedó ciego con dos años.

This sentence translates to, “He went blind at age two.”  In this interesting use of quedar, the verb means something between “to be” and “to be left.” This usage can also be used to express emotions or a state of being. For example, se queda triste means, “he is sad.”

Su equipo quedó quinto en la liga.

In this sentence, quedar means “to end up.” The English translation reads, “Her team ended up ranking fifth in the league.” This usage can be compared to the previous example. Both usages describe a person or object reaching a state of being. The final state of the team is fifth place.

quedar

Quedamos en el parque a las 5.

This sentence introduces a new meaning of quedar, which translates to, “Let’s meet at the park at 5.” This usage can also mean “to hang out.

No me quedó bien con ese hombre.

Here quedar is used to mean to have an impression on someone. It is generally paired with an adjective: quedar bien or quedar mal. This sentence translates to, “That man didn’t make a good impression on me.”

quedar

Te queda bien esa chaqueta.

This is a common use of the verb quedar that references the way something looks. The English translation of this sentence reads, “That jacket looks good on you.” This use of quedar can mean two things: it looks flattering, or it fits well. An alternate translation of this sentence is “That jacket fits you well.” In order to achieve the most accurate translation, you would need to have more context.

Don’t take shortcuts while translating a verb like quedar. A translator must be familiar with the various English verbs that correspond with quedar and also must distinguish which meaning the author originally intended. The context of a text lends clues that should help identify the meaning of a particular word. When it comes to quedar, ¡no te quedes confundida!


Not easy, is it? Get in touch with our translation experts if you have any questions about the best translation for your content.