Dec 28, 2008

Can you English?

I've enjoyed a bit of a break for the past few days and a chance to catch up on reading. Being the proud owner of a young wire-haired vizsla, Quodian's Aristos, who has a number of tests ahead of him in the coming year, I've got a strong interest in dog training. Many years ago I started with the methods of the Monks of New Skete for my old German Shepherd, but these are not enough for a young hunting dog with a sensitive temperament and very specific requirements for hunting tests to pass before he's permitted to breed. Unfortunately there are few hunters or dog trainers near Berlin who have experience with these Hungarian dogs, so at the present time we rely on advice at a distance, lots of books, online research seminars and hope for the best.

One of the fortunate discoveries we've made online are the training methods promoted by a Danish expatriate, Mogens Eliasen, who has very effective approaches which engage a dog's intelligence and avoid the harshness which can ruin a sensitive breed like the vizsla. Mr. Eliasen has written a number of books on the subject of dogs and dog training and translated at least one from Danish into English. I enjoy his writing very much not only for its good content, but also for its entertainment value. However, his work has one glaring deficiency which I have found in a number of other reference works lately. Like too many other non-native speakers of English, he has obviously relied on his own limited mastery of the language and failed to seek professional assistance in editing his work. So sometimes when reading it, I laugh, cringe or scratch my head in puzzlement at some of the things he tries to say but which are not entirely understandable to someone who doesn't speak Danish or at least a related Germanic language. The books are good on the whole, and the information is some of the best that I have found for dog training, but with professional editing it would all be so much better.

As translators most of us probably have similar experiences. Although Mr. Eliasen's English makes me cringe at times, it is at the better end of the scale, and very little if any of his core message is lost. However, the same cannot be said for many letters, user guides and other documents I see from customers who think they have a good command of English and that their work "just needs a bit of touching up". When I am told that there is no German original for some horrible bit of text I've been asked to look at, I get a sick feeling in my stomach. In many cases, the authors or their colleagues fail to understand what the problem is, because they can understand the text better than I can. Of course they can - it isn't English. It is German using bits of English and pseudo-English to replace the German words. The pseudo-English is put through a mental filter that is often difficult to grasp even for someone with a long acquaintance with the language. I've been using German actively now for over 33 years, and I can understand any German text whose English equivalent would not be inaccessible to me. But Denglisch is another matter entirely. I put it in the same category as all the hundreds of odd English pidgin dialects spoken around the world and consider it about as useful and appropriate in the professional world.

As a consulting liason between a German software company and its partners and subsidiaries in a number of other countries, I saw all too many cases where poor communication in English was unhelpful to the company's reputation and hindered its product sales. Along with considerations of professional reputation and marketing, there is the more important aspect of product liability to consider. Unclear, poorly written or badly translated instructions can mean considerable damage awards against a company, and not just in US courts. I recently had the pleasure of translating seminar materials for use in Germany where numerous local examples of product liability due to unclear instructions or defective instructions translated from defective manuals supplied by a foreign manufacturer were cited. So the idea of blindly relying on a company employee who spent a semester or two abroad in Canada or the UK with "translating" critical documentation as many companies seem to do, is truly fraught with risk. Many "professional" translators contribute to this problem as well by seriously overestimating their ability to translate into the languages they learned later in life. But regardless of where these translators or non-native writers fall on the ability scale, just like native speakers who write and translate, they should not ignore the importance of good editing services. If you are lucky, doing so will only make you look amateurish.

1 comment:

  1. I just wanted to thank you for your very interesting posts and advice. As a young translator, it is always great to have tips about marketing or IT from an experienced translator. So thanks very much! :-)


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