Backstroke of the West

Backstroke of the West

Back-translation gone very, very wrong.

These days, the idea of back-translation, translating from one language into another and then back again, is generally frowned on by experienced linguists.  The general idea is that the back-translation is a way of checking that the original meaning of the source text has not been ‘lost in translation’ by comparing the back-translation to the text you started out with.  However, as anyone who has ever played a game of ‘Chinese whispers’ can tell you, this is not always going to guarantee you a good result.  This is especially true of course if the translations are not done properly in the first place.

Most people these days are familiar with the Star Wars movies, including 2005’s Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith.  Opinion is definitely divided on this particular entry in the Star Wars saga, especially amongst die-hard fans, and I think it would be fair to say that very few people would consider the film’s dialogue to be one of the finest examples of English screenwriting.  Certainly however, the entertainment value of the film was greatly increased when someone in China released a bootlegged version of the film translated (we can only assume badly) into Chinese.  Not so remarkable you might think?  Where things get really interesting though, is in the subtitle options for this version of the film, which include subtitles in English that, for reasons we will perhaps never know, are not the original English dialogue transcribed, but are a machine-produced back-translation into English of the Chinese translation.  Sound messy?  It is.  The result is something approaching poetry, and is almost always hilarious.

From the point of view of a linguist, some of the phrases that have resulted from this process are fascinating to unpick.  Take the title of the film for starters.  ‘Revenge of the Sith’ has become ‘Backstroke of the West’.  The word ‘backstroke’ almost makes sense – revenge is after all ‘hitting someone back’ in essence, so you can see how the machine came to that conclusion.  Slightly more disconcerting is the villainous ‘Sith’ becoming ‘the West’, which doesn’t seem to speak very highly of the English speaking world in the eyes of the Chinese.

There are other phrases which at first seem to be nonsense, but on closer inspection make a very strange sort of sense.  A good example is a phrase which crops up a few times in the English subtitles: ‘the day after the fair’.  For the uninitiated, the epic sci-fi saga that is Star Wars is not big on things like fairs, the characters generally being far too busy trying to save the galaxy to take a break to ride the dodgems.  As such, this phrase seems to be completely out of place.  A bit of detective work, and referring back to the original un-warped English version, however, will lead you to the conclusion that what the characters mean to say is ‘too late’.  And then, after a few seconds, it suddenly makes a strange sort of sense.  Indeed, if you arrive the day after the fair, then you are inarguably too late – at least for the rides.

When it comes to the names of the characters, things are equally amusingly strange.  We can only assume that the names were transliterated into a Chinese approximation of the original names, and their meanings when this Chinese has been subsequently back-translated are truly odd.   For example, ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ becomes ‘Ratio Tile’.  ‘Anakin Skywalker’ becomes, seemingly interchangeably, either ‘Allah Gold’ or ‘the Peaceful is Willing to’.  The main female character ‘Padme’ becomes variously ‘The Plum of’ or ‘it Gets the Rice’.  Even organisations are not safe: the ‘Jedi Knights’ become the ‘Hopeless Situation Warriors’; the Jedi Council becomes the ‘Presbyterian Church’; the mystical ‘Force’ becomes the ‘Wish Power’.  I could go on.

To a lot of Star Wars fans, Backstroke of the West is a very funny revision of a film that a lot of people felt was disappointing in the first instance.  As a linguist it is also an excellent example, if you are going to do back-translation, of exactly how not to do it.  The tiniest misinterpretations in the translation become glaring absurdities in the back-translation, and subtle nuances and idiomatic turns of phrase are completely bulldozed.  Back-translation is rarely the best way of checking the validity of a translation, but if you do decide to do it both the translation and the back-translation need to be carried out by experienced, savvy translators who know the source material intimately.  And even then, do not expect the back-translation to marry up exactly with the text you started out with.

Bad back-translation will leave you ringing your hands and, like the newly helmeted Darth Vader, crying in anguish: “Nooooooooo!”.  Or, if you are watching Backstroke of the West: “Do not want!”

Emma Tidey
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