The Most Difficult Word To Translate

The Most Difficult Word To Translate

The Most Difficult Word To Translate

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Today I finished a large French translation about norms for allocating compensation in personal injury claims. (The story gets better, I promise) (…Well, maybe only if you’re a language nerd like me). Anyway, towards the end, it included a table showing the scale from 1 to 7 used in France to quantify a victim’s injuries, including a short description of each number (1 = Very mild, 6 = severe, etc.). I’d like to talk to you about this translation, and another one from a few months ago that involved a similar translation – another compensation claim, this time in Spanish. I remember being surprised that the most difficult word in this complex legal text was a very simple one: ‘medio’. This is the word I’d like to reflect on today.

‘Medio’ (Spanish), ‘moyen’ (French), and ‘medium’ (English) are very simple words. They all say that the damage falls in the very middle of the scale – if I asked you to place it on the French scale of 1-7, you’d almost certainly say that ‘medium’ would be a ‘4’. But in this Spanish translation, I can’t remember exactly why, the word ‘medium’ just didn’t fit with the rest of the sentence. And this is where the English language can be a bit of a trickster, because I was left with a vast array of synonyms for ‘medium’ but none of them really achieved what I wanted them to.

Given the context, there really wasn’t any room for mistakes here. I didn’t know the exact details of how this text would be used, but it was possible that this one sentence, which gave the medical expert’s analysis of the severity of the victim’s injuries, could affect the amount of compensation that the victim received. So I couldn’t just fling any old adjective in there and hope for the best.

I racked my brains for the best way to express ‘medio’. I looked it up in the thesaurus and made faces at all my options. For the record, here they are: average, middling, medium-sized, middle-sized, moderate, fair, normal, standard, usual. (Thanks Google).

Many of these are disqualified because we’re talking about an accident that caused distinctly out-of-the-ordinary damage to the victim. There is no such thing as an ‘average’ level of physical disfigurement – so there go average, normalstandard and usualMiddling, medium-sized and middle-sized are no good either, so I’m left with fair and moderate. Aside from the cruel irony of using the word fair to describe permanent disfigurement caused by a random traffic accident to an innocent passer-by, I also think that ‘fair’ implies quite a mild level of damage, and of course it could have been detrimental to the victim if I had translated ‘medio’ as ‘fair’ and the judge had inferred from this a lower severity of injury than the medical expert had actually wanted to communicate.

‘Moderate’ was better, but I still felt that this could be interpreted as being milder than ‘medium’. I discussed the use of ‘moderate’ at length with my then boyfriend, a lawyer, and I think I even got a bit of a debate going at his practice. He insisted that ‘moderate’ was an exact synonym of ‘medium’ in this context and that I was being pedantic, but I remained skeptical. ‘Moderate’ just seemed a little more… well, moderate than medium.

In the end, I suppose I probably rewrote the rest of the sentence and just used ‘medium’ after all. But the whole thing just made me stop and think a little about how many words we have in our language, and how sometimes, especially for translators, it can be much more trouble than it’s worth! We have so many connotations to work around all the time and, especially in this very delicate context, the risk of misinterpretation must be much higher in English than in languages with smaller (common-use) vocabularies: i.e. pretty much all of them. You know what they say about too many cooks…

But I’ll leave you with this, the trigger that reminded me of my struggle with ‘medium’ last year: Today, when I was translating the short descriptions for each level on the scale of 1-7 in French, ‘modéré’ (moderate) was used for damage at level 3 on the scale, and ‘moyen’ (medium) was level 4. My instincts were right all along!

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