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Lost and found in translation

Couple of years ago, I was travelling through the Baltic states, and made a short stop in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. After a walking tour in the downtown area, which is famous for its well-preserved medieval fortifications, I decided to pay a visit to the local bookstore, just to check out what kind of literature is available for a serious reader in this corner of Europe. I browsed the books in the History section, and randomly picked up one of them from the shelf. It happened to be a historical monograph written by an American scholar and translated to Estonian from the English. I was surprised to discover that the book included a professionally prepared index. I have never heard about indexers in Estonia, and was wondering whether they work independently or in-house, and how often they apply their skills in a such small publishing market.

Alas, my initial assumption about state of indexing in Estonia appeared to be wrong. I learned the inconvenient truth a year later when I read the article of Dutch indexer Pierke Bosschieter “Translate the index or index the translation?” (The Indexer, 47(3), Sept 2019: 233-239) According to her research, monographs translated from the English into Dutch and German languages often include a verbatim translation of the index. During production process, an indexer is commissioned to match translated index entries with page numbers in Dutch or German text. This approach may look like a rational choice for a publisher who wants to save money on the production, but it creates numerous problems for the indexer, and the result is never comparable with English original in terms of quality.

Pierke describes her own experience of preparing translated index. After matching hundreds of index entries, she ended up with the final that index contained 5300 locators with at least 1000 passing mentions. For a 625-page book, index was inadequately long, it was not as good as the original, and its composition was extremely laborious and time-consuming.

I can’t tell if the index in the Estonian book I have seen on the Tallinn bookstore was created from scratch by an indexer proficient in Estonian language, or, was it an adaptation of the English version. At least, it looked professional, and for this a publisher should get a credit.

At the end of the day, the practice of translating indexes doesn’t do any good to the readers, who will quickly discover disconnect between the index and the text. As Pierke Bosschieter suggested, it is better to re-index the translated text from scratch using the original index as a reference tool.

Posted in Indexing methods