One problem with translating language is that words are slippery. Their meaning changes based on context. Very few lexicon items have an absolute one-to-one match across languages. Words hold more like a cluster of varying meanings, and several words in another language cover part of that cluster but not all of it, and in their turn have additional meanings as well. Rather than an equal sign for glossary terms, it would be more reasonable to show overlapping bubbles of meaning. Translators and interpreters have to think about this a lot. How can we get all the meaning, without adding unintended meaning? How can we be general enough, and not cut out part of what is meant? How can we avoid misleading by adding meaning that was not stated in the original language?

I was working on a written translation from English into my target language, to be published hospital-wide, and the simplest phrase cost me more time and thought than the rest of the page put together. The word was turn. Not exactly a highly technical or obscure word. Just turn. As in, your surgeon will turn your eardrum during surgery, and then remove your stapes, one of the three tiny bones in your middle ear. The stapes, or stirrup, is responsible for conducting sound vibrations to the oval window in the inner ear. But how exactly does the surgeon “turn” the eardrum, or timpanum?

Why do I ask? Because turn is one of those words that does not have a one-for-one match in my target language. One kind of turn in my target language means to turn over, or flip, like turning a pancake. Another means turn to the right or the left, usually as in a ship turning, or changing course. Another is used for a more general gyrating on an axle, or changing directions right or left while remaining upright, not flipping. Yet another means more like to double back, but then that one also means to fold in half, and I don’t believe the surgeon is going to fold the eardrum into two halves or pleat it down the middle. Some of these verbs in the target language are intransitive (one is turning oneself) and others are transitive (one is turning an object) while the English term covers both situations. I turn myself, and I turn the page. Yet another way in which the English “turn” covers such a wide swath. Which way to turn?

I asked everyone on my team. No consensus. I looked at some surgery videos involving the inner and middle ear to watch how the eardrum was “turned”. Not helpful, except to suppress my appetite for lunch. I did some research by skimming through medical websites written in my target language. They all failed to mention the “turning” of the timpanum in their patient education materials. I googled my top three choices, to see which one had the most hits. Warning for translators: This can be dangerous and one must look out for other meanings with the same construction. For example, chest can mean the breast itself, or it can mean the thorax, or it can mean a piece of furniture with drawers in a cabinet, or a place to hold treasures. So googling the word “chest” to see how frequent it is used does not equate the frequency of use to specifically and exclusively mean the upper trunk of the human body.

Turning our attention back to turn, I considered alternative terms, such as adjust. But adjust has a shade of meaning to move something that is a little off into a better position. If you adjust your skirt, chances are it is twisted around and you are straightening it. I didn’t want to mislead the patient that their eardrum was somehow off and needed to be put into a better position where it was destined to remain after surgery. I was pretty sure that the eardrum was going to be turned or moved slightly aside in order to perform the surgery, and then placed back into its original correct position. So the eardrum could not accurately be considered adjusted in this case. If the eardrum is turned forward, we have “pull” to consider, but the word for pull in my target language also covers the meaning of yank, and even jerk. Would you want to read that your surgeon would yank your eardrum around, or jerk it? Likely not.

In this case, short of trying to get a very busy surgeon to talk to me about it, I had to make an executive decision among the countless ones that we linguists make daily. I chose to substitute the English word “turn” for the more general target language word “move”. The surgeon will most certainly, if very slightly, move the eardrum forward in order to complete this surgery. Presuming any patient actually gets this far in reading the booklet and has further questions about whether the surgeon is in fact turning, flipping, folding, bypassing, adjusting, yanking or performing some other minute yet interesting movements upon the precious eardrum, that patient can pose such a question at their pre-surgery consultation. And just for my personal curiosity, I hope I will be the one there to hear the doctor’s answer.