A translation detective story

By Kristin Fehlauer

Beyrer leans back in her chair and takes off her glasses to give them a quick clean with her shirt. She tilts them in the light to check for smudges before settling them back in place on her nose. “Ok, team, where’re we at?”
Harwardt reports from her workstation in the corner. “Scanning all the usual channels. A few possibles, but so far, nothing definitive.”
Rose, the in-house translation software expert, has also come up empty. “No hits in the database. I’m combing through visuals now, but it could be that we’re dealing with a whole new animal.”
Beyrer blows her breath out of the side of her mouth in frustration. “Baer, any chance you could weigh in on this?”
The dark Bavarian’s headphoned head peers over his monitors. “Sorry, chief. Took a quick glance, but it didn’t ring any bells. I’ve got my hands full with this aerospace contract.”
Beyrer nods in resignation. Not yet ready to give up, though; there are a couple other options to explore first. “Right. I think it’s time to call our friends in E Division.”

Kristin Fehlauer

Call in the cavalry

The day had started off normally enough in E Division. When Peters arrived at 9:30, he did the rounds, checking in on everyone, exchanging a few pleasantries and the odd mildly ribald joke with the team, before settling down to coffee and business. Mickelson and Eck were drafting copy, while Worthen and Fehlauer were painstakingly adapting segments as needed and writing new ones to fill the gaps.

Peters sticks his head into the Croom to say good morning. Rae, a veteran of many campaigns, is rubbing his eyes wearily. “Rough morning?” Peters asks. Rae heaves a sigh. “A real hatchet job, this one. The usual superficial issues, plus some deep structural problems. Not to mention more passives and danglers than I’ve seen in a long time.” He scrapes a hand through his hair as he glances at the clock. “I’ve been at this for two hours, and I doubt if I’ll be done disentangling before lunch.”Peters wags his head in sympathy. “Sounds like a nightmare. Well, let me know if there’s anything I can do.” Rae lifts a hand in acknowledgement as he turns back to his screens, and Peters heads off to the kitchen.

Armed with his morning brew – one shot of espresso topped with precisely foamed milk – Peters assumes his station. He’s just calling up the day’s docket when the phone rings. The display tells him it’s G Division. A call instead of a Skype text message means it’s probably urgent, and almost certain to be interesting. He picks up the receiver, and the brief exchange is pleasant but to the point.
“Beyrer here in G. Could you step over? We’ve got something I’d like you to look at.”
“Possibly some wiggle room, but I’d rather not push it.”
“Right-o. On my way.”
He quickly gulps the rest of his coffee before heading for the door, but the caffeine buzz is secondary; nothing like a puzzle under time pressure to get the blood pumping.

Detective case crop

Down to the wire

Peters steps into the control hub of G Division. Workstations are scattered around at various angles, breaking up the space into isolated, which is not to say unwelcoming, islands of privacy. Across from the door, two long windows let in light and a view of the Isar River. Against the far wall, a bookshelf holds old-school reference works, which continue to find use even in a digital age. Lush green potted plants provide a welcome respite from the ever-so-slightly-too-orange orange of the walls. A room for lively discussion, humorous banter, and industrious activity.

Not right now, though. With 10 o’clock looming, a certain tension has entered the atmosphere. Beyrer, Harwardt, and Rose are clustered at the latter’s workstation, peering anxiously at the two monitors in the hopes of finding any scrap of helpful information. They turn to Peters as he walks up.
“What do we have?”
Beyrer gives him a quick précis of the situation. “English to German translation, two-page article for a customer magazine, general interest. Text appears to have been written by a native speaker, and author confidence is high.”
Peters nods, slightly relieved. Whatever was throwing the German team, chances were that it was not some obscure technical term or an honest mistake due to foreign language interference. “Let me see.”
Rose taps on her screen at a sentence she has highlighted yellow. Peters gives it a quick look as the three women look at him expectantly .

“I’ve never seen that before,” he says. “What did your search turn up?”
Harwardt replies. “Dictionaries, Linguee, Wiki, trares, MemoQ, Google – all negative.”
“Nothing from Google?”
Beyrer sighs with irritation. “The phrase is fairly generic, so we’re having to weed out a lot of noise.”
“Any secondaries?” If other media outlets had picked up the story, it’s possible they reworded it in a way that made things clearer.
“No.” The stress is beginning to show on Beyrer’s face. “They seem to be the only people on the planet who are using this.”

Teamwork: The crucial element

Even while running through this checklist, Peters has already seen the term and is mulling it over: door tabs.
Door tabs? What in the world are “door tabs”?
Peters shuts his eyes, trying to picture it. The text is about plans for upscale residences, and context indicated that these door tabs were a special feature. What could they mean? It was not a term he had ever come across in his career, or even outside of his professional work. Could it be another word for finger plates? He dismisses that; the source text said these were made of leather, whereas plates were usually made of metal or some other hard material. Door knob, no; peephole, no; some kind of decorative inlay? Not likely.
He turns to Beyrer. “Did you try to contact them?” Although the teams viewed this as a last resort, as it was often difficult to get hold of the actual text author and meant pestering them with a seemingly minor question, it appeared to be the most effective option in this case.

Beyrer nods. “We contacted the person who sent it in, but they’re having trouble locating the author. A lot of people are on vacation, and they’re not sure who was involved.” Press materials are frequently unsigned. She sighs again. “Ok, it’s almost 10, so I’m calling it. Rose, find something as general as possible and leave a comment for the author.” She walks back to her station and yanks her chair back, which groans in protest. “What a crappy start to the day. And to top it off, my desk chair keeps making that annoying noise.”

Desk chair? Peters begins to have an idea. “Desk chair” contains the word “desk,” but it’s not a feature of the desk itself. Perhaps the same logic could apply to the door tabs? “What if the door tab isn’t on the door, but next to it? Or near it in some way?” he asks.
Rose snaps her fingers. “Like those signs next to doors in professional buildings? That’s a possibility.” She thinks for a moment. “How about Türschilder?”
Beyrer pauses. “Türschilder,” she muses. “That could work. Keeps the reference to the door in, but is just as non-specific as the English.” She grins, relieved. “I think I can live with it!”
“Ok, stand by.” Rose’s fingers fly over the keyboard. One final triumphant click, and she sits back. “Uploaded and gone!”
“Great, thanks!” says Beyrer. She looks at Peters. “Thanks so much for your help.”
“My pleasure,” he returns. “Let me know if we get any feedback from them.” He heads back to his office, ready to start his day.

The adventure continues…

Obviously, translation issues are not always solved in such a dramatic way! But we do use a variety of sources and techniques to try to understand what the author wishes to convey, and sometimes that calls for creative thinking. One of the best things about this job is that you never know when you will need to channel your inner Nancy Drew or Sherlock Holmes to follow the clues to a new discovery!
What’s your translation detective story?

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