Jenny the Giraffe

Don’t let the readers of your translated documents be left in the dark!

“Jenny is sad today,” he said as he walked past me in the hall. My brain flipped through all its entries on the word Jenny. No, it’s not his wife’s name. I don’t think he has children yet. A neighbor? His mother-in-law? An assistant, perhaps? Then I remembered: he is a big soccer fan. The mascot for Sutton United is Jenny the Giraffe, and Sutton had lost its last match.


Context is king. From news articles to insider jokes to corporate shorthand—a listener or reader who doesn’t know the background is left in the dark.

Many years ago, when I was translating, I kept stacks of bilingual dictionaries on my shelf. I had legal dictionaries, economics dictionaries, automotive dictionaries, technical dictionaries, and medical dictionaries that showed German to English meanings, in addition to the German/German dictionaries needed to explore the nuances of a term beyond its translation.

Why did I need so many dictionaries? This was before the internet had expanded. Smaller dictionaries designed for travelers or students have at most two meanings for a term. Today, many online references are similarly limited. The documents I was handling were often very complex, and I searched for the terms in context if at all possible. It wasn’t unusual for the fifth or sixth entry to be the one I needed. When all my reference volumes failed, I found that reference librarians were an amazing resource.

One example stands out. I was asked to translate consumer materials for a very specialized knee and ankle brace. I have studied basic anatomy and physiology, but I needed more specific information on exactly how these joints functioned together. The reference librarian listened to my question and walked me over to the children’s section. She knew exactly which book would show—not tell—what I needed to know. From there, I was able to dig deeper into other volumes to understand more deeply what I needed.

As I began helping to evaluate new linguists and eventually formed my own company, I realized that one way to tell a rank beginner (or amateur) is if s/he uses the first definition of a word whether or not it fits the context. In one instance, the English read insert plug. German has eight or ten different words for plugs, but the linguist had chosen the one that means wall plug. A reading of the entire document revealed that the plug functioned as a stopper, not a connector. The meaning of the source document was lost.

I also proofread the translation of a manual designed for remote outdoor maintenance use along highways. There were so many contextual errors in the translation that I felt for the workers. I could just imagine someone in a snow-filled ditch with the temperature in the teens and the wind picking up. The poor person reads the translated manual and desperately tries to make sense of it. More likely, these workers toss the manual into the ditch and just handle the repair, making it up as they go along. What a waste!

Context is also the reason we warn clients against too many sports metaphors in their text.

He hit it out of the park or that was a home run or he benched me or it’s time to play hardball will not be translated literally from English. When dealing with metaphor, the linguist has several choices: leave it in English and explain it (very clunky); translate the literal meaning (better, but loses something); or find a metaphor in the target language that means the same thing (difficult, but the best way to accurately render the meaning).

If instruction manuals and business letters pose problems for the amateur linguist, warranties, IFUs, and legal documents of all kinds have traps waiting in their dense text to catch the inexperienced linguist, sometimes with disastrous results.

Professional linguists are trained to recognize and deal with linguistic hazards. Experience with numerous types of documents teaches them to look for the booby traps that various languages present. We’d like to send you information about language idiosyncracies.

Patricia May