Translating ‘klant’ and other stories

‘Klant is Koning!’ says the famous phrase. That translates literally to ‘Client is King!’ As a saying, the English equivalent is ‘The customer is always right’. So which one is right for a translation: client or customer?

The answer is… it depends. ‘Client is King!’ has an in-your-face quality which might be suitable for a marketing campaign. Translating is not just about swapping Dutch words for English, but also about capturing the tone of a text. In-your-face can feel more like American than British English, something the British themselves can get quite snooty about. (An ‘Americanism’ implies something vulgar or unpoetic – ‘That’s so gross!’ as opposed to ‘How frightfully disgusting’.)

A question of meaning

There is another issue: In English, ‘customer’ and ‘client’ are not quite the same things. A supermarket has customers; a lawyer has clients. Say ‘bank customer’ and you picture accounts, savings, and people queuing before a cash machine. Say ‘bank client’ and you picture private banking, financial discussions, and meetings in shiny conference rooms.

But you can say ‘klant’ in Dutch and that just means someone you do business with or provide a service for, whether customer or client. ‘Klant’ does not make the distinction, which can be frustrating when doing a translation.

English to Dutch

Mind you, there are times when the shoe is on the other foot. Let’s go back to the English word ‘client’, for example. That can be translated into Dutch as ‘klant’ or ‘opdrachtgever’. But ‘opdrachtgever’ is a very specific term. If I’m hired in for a project, the person doing the hiring is my opdrachtgever, not my klant. Indeed, my job is usually to help the opdrachtgever satisfy their klanten.

Okay, in English, I would say ‘client’, but I seldom do that in the Netherlands anymore. Even when speaking to other people in English, I use the term ‘opdrachtgever’ because it is so damn precise. It’s like using the right screwdriver for a screw, whereas ‘client’ feels like using a small kitchen knife because none of my screwdrivers fit. It does the job, but it’s not ideal.

When translating from the Dutch, the key question is not always ‘What’s English for this?’

It’s ‘What do you want to say with it?’

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Mike Pearse

9 juli 2021