Adventures in course and thesis title translations

Ideally, a translator or interpreter converting something from one language to another has expertise in both languages. In reality, this is often not the case. In a bilingual environment, limited knowledge of two languages can sometimes be mutually destructive to both.

Mistranslation, Typo, or Autocorrect?

In an academic context, this condition is exacerbated by the presence of scientific, technical, and medical terminology.

Thus, one reviewing a translation of an academic grade report can find gems of mistranslation such as “Accountability” instead of “Accounting,” “Psychics” instead of “Psychology,” and even “Physics” instead of “Physical Education.”

Other examples are probably not mistranslations, but simply typographical errors, or autocorrect gone berserk:

  • Temporary History (Contemporary History)
  • Madwifery (Midwifery)
  • Language Kills (Language Skills)
  • Hand Wearing (Hand Weaving)
  • Basil Mathematics (Basic Mathematics)
  • Women Swear (Women’s Wear)
  • Literary Cretinism (Literary Criticism)

Mysterious Course Titles

In some cases, the school has issued an official transcript in English, we are left without the benefit of course titles in the original language of instruction, and many of the intended subjects must remain a complete mystery:

  • Ethics for Child-Takers (Childcare Ethics?)
  • Geometry of Foreign Language (Geometry for Foreign Language Majors?)
  • Charming in the Aquarium and Aquatic Animals
  • Engineering Disease
  • Phantom Head Exercises

Literal vs Semantic Translation

Often, we have found, the translation is literally correct, but could use a bit of academic refinement.

For example, in some contexts, we encounter the subjects of Orthopedic Stomatology, Surgical Stomatology, and Therapeutic Stomatology – but we have found that these are more accurately translated as Prosthodontics or Prosthetic Dentistry, Oral Surgery, and Operative Dentistry, respectively. And Tooth Contouring or Dental Sculpting certainly sound more academic – and less painful – than Tooth Carving.

My point here is not to belittle translators themselves, but to acknowledge the hazards of translation, the benefits of checking translations against original texts – and yes, the humor and horror in translations gone wrong.

Learning from Checking Translations

Indeed, checking translations can often expand one’s vocabulary and lead to a better understanding of different areas of study. I recently encountered a dentistry program that featured a thesis discussing the Schilder technique. Having never heard of the Schilder technique – and for the reasons outlined above – I went to the internet for help.

I learned that Herbert Schilder developed his technique for root canal therapy in the 1960s. When Schilder died in 2006, Boston University, whose School of Dental Medicine Schilder helped found, paid tribute with an article that includes this hilarious passage:

"His pioneering method was immortalized in the film Finding Nemo, when Nemo, a fish in an aquarium in a dentist’s office, watches a root canal being performed on a patient. 'Now he’s doing the Schilder technique,' says the wincing starfish Peach. Schilder’s family took him to a theater to see the movie. 'He was tickled pink,' his son, Richard, told the Boston Globe. 'He finally made it to Hollywood.'"

In the end, while translations of academic documents can sometimes veer toward the cartoonish, vetting them against the original documents can be rewarding, not only to our customers, but to ourselves.

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David Brannan is an Evaluator and has been with ECE since 2010. He specializes in education in several countries, including Canada, India, Nigeria, and the Philippines.



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