Changing text to culturally match the target audience

The below correspondence concerns my translation of a large book on positive thinking written by a Czech for the Czech market. It became a best seller and the client wanted it translated into English so that he could reach a broader audience (and make more money). But both my proofreader and myself felt the overall tone and substance of the text was far short of a best-seller for the English speaking market. I made a few points below.

In translation, I find that a lot of clients are proud about what they wrote and expect it to sound as good if carefully translated and reflected in the target language. They may know some rudimentary knowledge of the target language, pick up a dictionary, compare their creation against the translation and scream bloody murder when it does not look exactly the same. Certain text should be subject to modification when considering the cultural nuances of the target market. This can be a difficult matter to explain to the customer.

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I never translated a book like this before, but my assumption is that the primary goal is to sell as many as possible, and make it more popular. Which is why I thought I’d mention a certain tone which may make it less enjoyable reading for English speakers. I will also ask the proofreader for his opinion.

Here are some examples:

  • there are frequent references to people drinking beer, such as watching the news while drinking beer. I know Czechs are the highest consumers of beer in the world, and I have contributed significantly to this statistic, but after repeatedly referring to it, it seems a bit odd in English;
  • there are numerous references to envy and badmouthing others as a negative emotional quality, and these are often used as examples, but I feel that this too may be more akin to Czech culture. The author seems to almost get angry when writing about it, such as in reaction to having been subjected to such character types frequently, and it seems a bit out of place, because I do not believe English speakers are like this (at least to this abundance) or that it is so prominent there;
  • and overall, there seems a slightly heavy hand of arrogance. Someone once told me that Czech managers have recently started to belittle their employees in an almost shameless way, because they had come to the conclusion that this is the only way to put Czechs into their place. Knock them off their haughty pedastal and bring them down to earth, and under control. Perhaps Czechs think so highly of themselves that this sort of shock therapy works, but I think it could be a bit on the offensive end for English speakers and hurt book sales (ie- the arrogant tone could wake Czechs to their senses and increase book sales there, but my guess is it could have an opposite effect in the English speaking countries).

These are just my suggestions and opinions, but I admit it would probably take a lot of work to shift the tone. A lot of retranslations, but if you would like me try to shift things in any way, or think up other examples, it would be better to know this before I start proofing it after myself.

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[Below is some correspondence between myself and my proofreader on this subject:]

Hi Marty, today I found the psychological energy to continue with my last proofread, but after reading some of your criticisms, a lot of what I’m proofreading now (after my first draft translation) sounds rather dumb. After delivering everything to him, including the first round of comments, perhaps I could offer your service of polishing it more. What do you say? Not sure he will agree, because it seems to me he is convinced the format is good enough, since the book is selling successfully in various countries, but perhaps we could suggest it anyway.

To be honest – I think the book needs to be reworked – not rewritten – but there are a lot of superfluous statements and paragraphs that could either be omitted or require explanation. I am not sure a direct translation will find success on the English market. In the Czech Rep.; Hungary and Slovakia, he is relevant. In the UK, North America, Germany wherever else he wants to market it, he’s one of a million authors trying to sell their product. I can see from his writing he is self assured – but surely he wants to sell a quality product? I’ll be in the UK next week, back on Friday, so I’ll try to get a look at your changes while there, but in the mean time, good luck with the psychological energy. 

[and later..]

I’ve attached & pasted notes on the file. If you have any further questions feel just email me. 

Notes: Before my comments – I just thought I’d give you a suggestion on proofreading. I understand it is very hard to write something and edit it yourself. However, I can see many “typical Czech” mistakes as I read. I don’t read these in your emails/correspondence. I would suggest taking a day off (at least from the book) & read some English – the New York Times, Top Gear Magazine, whatever. But “think in English” when you read the book – you’ll spot lots of little “Czechisms” that, while not incorrect, don’t flow well. Over use of the present perfect, verbs & prepositions in the wrong places or back to front, unusual word order. I’ll pick them up as I proofread the final of course, but I can see a lot of it already. 

Anyway – rather than add more Track Changes to your work, I’ve just jotted down notes as I read over the piece. It’s a very aggressive work – though I gather that’s how he wants it. Hopefully he finds his audience! 

I see you have kept the ??? I think it looks like a publishing error – whatever meaning it is intended to convey is lost on me. 

Title: I suggest the direct translation: “The Secret of Inner Speech” for a working title – Secret Whispers sounds like a scary movie. The CD title – “Positive thinking is not for everyone” seems more apt, in my opinion. I just typed “How to Gain Control Over Your Life and Attain Success” into Google, there are dozens of results for “How to gain control of your life” – There may not be much Czech authored literature about this, but the English market is filled with “how to attain success…” books. p5. Generally called “Acknowledgements” 

Introduction: While Ivo may be a celebrated businessman here – overseas (I assume) he will be unknown. I suggest he write a new foreword for the translation – and that may also be a nice way to address interest in the “life in a post communist country”. I’d also remove references to the CDs – I assume they are not available in English?

p13. “no girl would like me” – no girls would talk to me – girls didn’t like me “a sorry sod as myself” – sounds very British. I think “a weirdo like me” would probably fit. 

p14. “And if there is, why are not people living their lives accordingly?” Suggest you either use contraction “aren’t” or …why are people not living… This page mentions “two people who changed my life completely” – but only one is evident. Chapter one is very long. And while I understand the author is making a point about perseverance, it is a gruelling story that he may want to consider shortening or breaking up over the book? 

p27. – Perhaps you should offer to translate the opening of the website for him as well 😉  

p28. Using Jan Hus is fine (perhaps draw a comparison with Martin Luther, as he is more famous throughout the world) I think either separating by comma, or () would be fine. Many people don’t read footnotes or find them too “academic” – if this is to be simple, keep it all in the body of the text. “Why was Jan Hus, the catholic reformer who gave rise to the Hussite movement in the 14th Century, burned at the stake?” Thomas Becket & Janosika aren’t mentioned – perhaps leave it that way? “Masaryk, the first president and eventual creator of the Republic of Czechoslovakia” 

p31. I’d take out any specifics – the comparison is with “Fairy Tales & Sitcoms”. Thus mentioning Poland & Mengele does not work on the same level. Perhaps – “History is filled with injustices and victory for those who have not earned it.” The last sentence is awful – cut it! 

p54. “But they are almost always scolded when they start to preoccupy themselves with it.” – I don’t know if this is even true in the modern Czech Republic? I teach many children and have large extended families that encourage kids to examine wildlife and biology etc. But it is well understood that many parents yell at their children and I think the reference to media is well written. 

p63. “Catholic church clearly proved that they work” – yes, but numbers have been astronomically declining throughout the 20th century. Reference to a “Mantra” or a sports coach encouraging his team to “get out there and win!” might have more appeal and relevance? 

p108. Soccer (Football) is the most popular sport in the UK and most of Europe. In Australia we call Rugby “Football”, and have 4 different codes. Change it to Football & most English speakers will accept the reference. 

p138. “Forget about willpower” – this entire paragraph is a contradiction. “concentrate & focus” is exactly that – willpower. – Church references; yeah – I don’t see the relevance to his core point. But as I just said, this entire point doesn’t make sense. The reference to him being an atheist may affect sales in the US. He is not writing a critique of religion – so why piss a large market share off? 

p170. – Popped into my head to finish off with a smiley face. Just a suggestion. – Not in a published book! This is a new phenomenon of 10 years that is scorned by most journalists, parents and teachers around the world. 

Thanks for the tips and I will forward to the customer.

Concerning my English, I realise that the Czech can influence me, but its hard not to let it. He himself admits that his Czech linguistic skills are rather weak. I do read lots of English stuff regularly. Anyway, it was a hard first proofread, hopefully the second one will go smoother, and you will be able to smooth out the remainder to make the book pleasantly readable.

Yes, he insisted on keeping the ??? there because he is using it to make the reader stop and think on the topic, instead of just blasting through the book. He prefers to keep it, and seems rather rigid so far concerning any basic changes to the book. Will keep trying. Would like it to become popular so that it could hopefully lead to some future work for me/us.

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madmin

Head Honcho at KENAX
After translating and managing translation projects for more than 20 years, I'm happy to teach others the ropes and move on to other interests. My greatest perk from this profession is that it has given me the freedom to work when and where I want, and eventually to loosen the straps and travel freely around the world.
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