June 12, 2010

A look at translation in the news: driving in Taiwan

An article about driving in Taiwan recently appeared on the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei website. It's an excellent article by Steven Crook, and it was featured in local media soon after being published. Just a month or two ago, there was another article critical of Taiwan's traffic that originated from a non-Taiwanese source and made the rounds in local media, so Taiwanese evidently enjoy the criticism, perhaps because they agree with most of it.

But instead of writing about traffic in Taiwan, I wanted to take a look at how the article was translated and summarized by the China Times. There appear to be no mistranslations resulting from a misunderstanding of the text. There are, however, a number of instances where the translator did not bother to accurately reproduce the quotes and ideas of the original article. In no particular order:

Original: ...the way cars are driven and motorcycles ridden here is not quite the same as in North America or Western Europe.
Translation: 「台灣開車、騎機車的方式與北美、西歐大不同」。

Reproduced as "The way cars are driven and motorcycles ridden in Taiwan is very different than in North America or Western Europe."

This type of translation happens all the time. A mitigating phrase (not quite) becomes an intensifier (大, or greatly) when translated between languages. Or intensifiers are added and removed without rhyme and with very little reason.

Original: Nevertheless, there are plenty of destinations and situations where having your own set of wheels makes all the difference between frustration and enjoyment.
Translation: 文中指出外國人在台灣手執方向盤,是「挫折、喜悅,兼而有之」

Reproduced as "According to the article, when a foreigner in Taiwan get behind the wheel, 'there are both frustrations and joys.'"

This is the strangest translation in the article. In Chinese newspaper articles, it often seems that there is no attempt at greater fidelity to a directly quoted source in comparison with an indirect quote. This is not even close to a faithful translation. It uses some of the same words as the original article to make a completely different point. The original article is actually saying that driving your own vehicle is more likely to lead to joy than relying on public transportation (which can lead to frustration). The text quoted in Chinese is a fair summary of the English article as a whole, but the use of quotes (「」) is very misleading.

Original: Highways are well maintained
Translation: 高速公路維修良好

Reproduced as "Freeways are well maintained."

"Highways" is a difficult word to translate when there is little context. In common speech, highway is synonymous with freeway, but in literature provided by the DMV, for example, "highway" refers to all public roads. So, in this article, it is very difficult to be certain of the author's intended meaning. Given the number of potholes in local roads and the patchwork of shoddily resurfaced blacktop in residential areas in Taiwan, I might guess that "highways" refers to "freeways" here, but those potholes are usually repaired within weeks and patchwork residential blacktop seems to get resurfaced every few years.

Original: Taiwan's public transportation is inexpensive, efficient...
Translation: ...台灣交通諸多優點,例如價格低、效率高...

Reproduced as "Taiwan's transportation has many merits, such as being inexpensive and efficient."

The translation has described Taiwan's transportation system with the words originally describing only Taiwan's public transportation.

Original: ...running of amber and red lights...
Translation: ..搶黃燈、闖紅燈...

Reproduced as "Vying for yellow lights and running red lights."

In this case, the Chinese translation makes more sense than the original. (The phrase "running of ... amber lights" was quoted, not written by Steven Crook.) In my dialect of English, "running yellow lights" does not make sense, but it is apparently acceptable in other dialects of English.

Original: ...it doesn't demand any defensive driving techniques.
Translation: ...不必具備安全駕駛所需的技能

Reproduced as "it's not necessary to have safe driving techniques."

A literal translation of "defensive driving" would be simple enough, but "defensive driving" is apparently a concept foreign enough such that it is instead translated as "save driving."

Original: When a car is about to overtake a motorcycle or bicycle, the former usually warns the latter with a short blip on the horn. This is a good idea;
Translation: ...超越機車、腳踏車時,要先短短的按聲喇叭

Reproduced as "when passing a motorcycle or bicycle, one should first give a short tap of the horn."

The original sentence states that honking the horn is a good idea. The Chinese translation goes further by saying that one "should" honk the horn, or to translate it another way, "it is required." This is another common kind of minor mistranslation, done for convenience.


This quote was in the Chinese article, but I was unable to find a similar quote in the original article. It is possible that the sentence was gathered from a different source, or it could be a summary of several statements in the original article repackaged as a quote.