• Elen

Dogs’ fingers and foxes’ gloves: a translator's tale about customer service

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

We recently translated a social media post that highlighted cultural relevance and our roles as translators in helping clients bridge the gap between them and their audience. The client's post tells how folklore attributes the plant name foxglove to the idea that fairies gave these flowers to foxes to enable them to sidle up to poultry or sneak quietly away from humans. It’s a lovely tale, but it becomes difficult in translation – the Welsh for foxglove has nothing to do with foxes! In Welsh the flower name translates as dogs’ fingers, bysedd y cŵn. The client wished to explain how the flower got its English common name, but in translation the story doesn’t work so well. Dogs' fingers and foxgloves don't mix. Readers of the Welsh translation will be left asking: What’s that got to do with dogs?! We couldn't leave our client's readers bewildered.

So what to do?

Translators don’t like to play around too much with content, but this English content just didn’t fit the Welsh language. It would be poor customer service to just take words from one language and put them into another, so enter problem solving mode: 1. Maybe there's a similar story for how the foxglove got its Welsh name. Well, a quick online search offered no illumination. We could spend hours delving into books and chasing experts in Welsh folklore and botany. But the translation is required pretty soon.

2. Speak with the client, explain the problem and offer a solution: how about we adapt the Welsh a bit? Keep the nice story about fairies and foxes but say, this explains the English name. Then ask the Welsh readers if they know where the flower got its Welsh name.

And this is what we did, and our client was happy. So were we! It's rewarding working with clients to get the best outcome. And what we really loved about this solution was that it didn't cost our client any time.

When you are writing English language content, it’s very difficult to foresee where these kinds of issues will turn up. And they don’t turn up so often. But when they do, your translator is well placed to spot them. And of course, at Idiom we pride ourselves on translating culture as well as words.

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