Translating Language Dialects
The word “dialect” typically refers to a variation of a language used by a select group of speakers. Here are some characteristics to help you identify it:
- variations in grammar
- variations in vocabulary
- variations in prosody
- variations in usage patterns
- likely will not have its own written literature
- likely will not be specific to a state or nation of its own
- likely specific to a region
- possibly specific to the social class of speakers
Before going into issues relevant to translating, be aware these are just some of the most common attributes related to what linguists refer to as dialects and not all of these criteria need to be met.
What does this mean for translation?
Usually, while translating something for a specific country, you would choose the official language of that particular State. In fact, each region may have various dialects of a given language, but the official variant would usually be a common denominator. This means even speakers of another dialect would usually be fluent in the official version of a language as well, while also accepting translations into the standard dialect.
However, there are some cases where the official language is a variation of an idiom with much broader coverage. Examples are British English vs. American English or Canadian French vs. Parisian French. German for Germany, Switzerland, or Austria. Or Spanish for any one of the many Spanish-speaking countries that each lay claim to specific variations of the language.
So, how do you behave in that case?
As so often, it depends…
- …on your budget: Translation can be a sizable portion of your marketing budget. It makes a difference whether you translate into one French or two, one Spanish or two, or four or ten.
- …on the source text: Highly technical texts such as scientific papers, pharmaceutical product information, or patent specifications are unlikely to differ much from dialect to dialect. Nevertheless, texts that are written in a casual tone about everyday topics would probably use words, idioms, or styles that are specific to the region.
- …on the target regions: The difference between written Spanish for Chile and Peru is likely negligible, but both may have usages that are different enough from e.g. Mexican Spanish or U.S. Spanish to warrant some adaptation (see B).
- …on your goals: Are you just trying to get basic information across, or do you want to connect with local end consumers? In the first case, it may be perfectly acceptable to send High German texts to Switzerland. But if you want to appear Canadian, you would want to make sure to not use expressions that are obviously Parisian.
In many cases of dialect variations, it may be sufficient to edit a translation in order to adapt it for a different dialect region. Let’s say you have a 100-page Spanish document that you want to use in the U.S. and in Britain. It would be quite inefficient to go through the full translation process twice. In most cases, you’d probably translate into one of the dialects and then have another translator go through to make necessary adjustments to spelling or verbiage.
A little aside on translation workflow here:
In the case your translators work with a translation memory tool (which they probably should), then the dialect adaptation should also be done in the tool.
You could ask someone to just mark up a PDF and change the output document, however, we recommend you not to. If your original source document changes, you would actually want to rely on the translation memory tool to repopulate all translations that are unaffected. And you would want to have this option for all target dialects at once. So, talk to us before you make costly mistakes by taking what seems to be a shortcut.
Before you adjust a text for a dialect, you should take a careful look. Doing so may be altogether unnecessary in some cases, while in others, it may not only be appropriate but even essential. If you know people on the ground, show them a translation sample and ask them whether it is acceptable for their region. Or come to us for linguistic analysis. Our in-country translators can not only perform the task of dialect adaptation, they can also provide you with a prior report on the utility and necessity of doing so.
Written by Tim Kaney and Philipp Strazny