A recent news story with Alec Baldwin and the “Make America Great Again” baseball cap in Russian is a great example of how clients can instantly undermine their reputation and credibility by not using professional translators or interpreters. And they may not even be aware of a mistake until it is too late!
The idea itself is hilarious and the Baldwin’s Instagram photo generated over 27,000 likes by January 9.
The cap Mr. Baldwin wears in the photo (see the link at the bottom of this page), however, literally says in broken Russian “To Make Americas Excellent (or possibly even “Cool”) Again” (“Сделать Америки здорово снова”). It is a far cry from the original English phrase. But, lo and behold, this is exactly the Russian version that Google Translate produces!
So we can only assume that machine translation was used. We do not know if Baldwin had the cap made for him or bought the cap online and assumed the translation was accurate. This cap with this incorrect Russian translation is widely available from online stores.
In any instance, the fault is on whoever used machine translation instead of hiring a professional, and Baldwin may have become an unknowing victim!
What it resulted in? Loss of credibility. Russian speakers are now very confused by the wrong grammar on the cap and this topic is being discussed quite a bit in the Russian speaking Internet: did Baldwin do it deliberately to mock Trump’s speaking style. Or was it just a grammar mistake?
One Russian user said: “What’s this utter illiteracy about??? Alec, take it off and don’t make a fool of yourself.”
This is a good example how clients may not even be aware that the translation is wrong and start coming up with all kinds of different explanations. A poor translation can undermine any dialogue from the very beginning and result in a train wreck of a discussion when delegates will be completely led astray and forget about the main topic. The effect snowballs quickly.
We would like to illustrate now the thinking process a professional translator or an interpreter would use taking Russian and Spanish as two examples.
While it is only one possible way to translate MAGA, it shows very well how complex the process of creating a good translation really is!
Someone online suggested that a correct Russian version would be Давайте сделаем Америку великой. It is “Let’s make America great”
Strictly speaking “Let’s make America great again” is a Ronald Reagan campaign slogan. Trump uses “Make America great again”
Давайте is Let’s. Technically speaking it is incorrect (we could be accused of plagiarism if we use “Let’s” in a translation of the Trump phrase) and stylistically it is too long for a Russian catchy phrase not to mention for a baseball cap. The additional word давайте distorts the rhythm of the original English Trump’s phrase and does not convey its flow.
If we take “Make America great again” outside of its historical context, then grammatically your guess is as good as mine if it means “(Let’s) make America great again ” or “(To) Make America great again” or a command “Make America great again!” because all these options are grammatically possible. Let’s take the second option if only to distinguish from the Reagan slogan.
Russian language press and mass media apparently did not pick up on the difference and use сделаем Америку снова великой which again can be back translated into English as “let’s” which is not acceptable.
Back translation is a legitimate trick that translators use to verify if their translation works in the language of the translation.
If we take the risk and assume option 2 i.e. “(To) Make America great again,” a grammatically neutral translation could be: снова сделать Америку великой, however, it sounds pretty boring in Russian and not at all as a political slogan.
Another more creative option is снова сделаем Америку великой though it implies “we will” make America great.
If we play with the word order, we could say: Америку великой сделать снова! It has a nice rhythm and flow and is even reminiscent of the poems by a post Bolshevik revolution poet Vladimir Mayakovsky.
As a professional translator you are making a creative decision and it depends heavily on the context, the end client, how the phrase will be used, your sense of style, etc.
In the final analysis it is not a “one hat (sic, humor intended) fits all” situation- there are many options and literary taste and common sense must be used to find the best solution.
In Spanish the translation of MAGA seems even more problematic.
- Que América vuelva a ser grande
- Haz América grande otra vez
- Hagamos que América vuelva a ser grande
- Devolvámosle a los Estados Unidos su grandeza
- Rehacer la grandeza de América
- Hagamos América grande de nuevo
- ¡Arriba América!
Or??? See a link to a great article on the topic at the bottom of this page.
Why are we writing all this, especially if you do not speak Russian?
This diligent thinking process is used by professional translators and interpreters (including yours truly) in every sentence. The text to be translated must be carefully analyzed and dissected taking into consideration sometimes a dozen stylistic and other factors.
It is a job for a professional not for a computer or for someone who thinks he can speak a foreign language.
General public usually does not understand how much time and effort it takes to produce an accurate and stylistically correct translation even if it is just a few words.
Computer translation will not replace human translators any time soon and the Baldwin cap is a vivid example how you can put your foot in your mouth if you over-rely on technology or use a substandard quality translation product.
What else can we add, except “Make Translation Professional Again!”