Journalism and translation

by Terence MacNamee

I often have to do journalistic translation. I translate from French, German and Italian into English, most often for Swissinfo (, where there are always articles to be translated from the national languages of Switzerland.

Indeed, I have done all kinds of translation in my time, by with journalistic translation you have to do much more than just translate word for word. You have to adapt. You may have to explain things that are obvious to readers of the other language. In particular, you may have to explain concepts peculiar to a particular country that do not have an exact equivalent in English.

But most of all, you realize that doing journalism is different in different languages. It is a matter of style and rhetoric rather than content. It has to do with the way you write a newspaper article, in particular. In English, the meat of the story has to be at the beginning; you cannot expect the reader to read a couple of paragraphs before he knows what the article is about. In other languages, this may not be the case. Again, some languages are more rhetorical, in that the writer may pose rhetorical questions. This is hardly done in English. The way of writing a headline is very different too.

Why is the way of writing an article so different between languages? It is not that there are even explicit rules. It is just that people imitate what they have read. New journalistic articles are modelled directly on existing articles. Budding journalists copy the style of these articles, because that is how you “sound professional”. And of course they are only likely to read journalism in their own language.

All too often, translated journalism sounds lifeless. You need to make it attractive for the English reader – while resisting the temptation to vulgarity. Anglo-American journalism now has a characteristically breezy, flippant tone about it that is getting increasingly hard to dispense with when you write in English.

There is something else to this business, too. If you anglicize (adapt culturally) too much, you will rob the reader of the chance to read something really different from his usual fare. When you think of it, there is no necessity for English-language journalism to be the way it is. It has just got that way. If we homogenize other voices in journalism when we translate them into English, we lose the opportunity to let these other voices influence English mainstream journalism.

When you read journalism in other languages, media from other countries, you realize how much variety there is out there. The goal of translation should be to preserve that variety, or at least give some reflection of it. At the same time, translation makes you reflect on the nature of journalism – which is why I am glad to do it.