Jul 8, 2010

Divided by a common language

It happened again today for the third or fourth time this week, possibly the tenth time in the last month or the hundredth this year. A call from a stranger at a strange agency:
"I have a document that urgently requires translation into English. Can you do it?"
"Good question. Your guess is as good as mine. What's it about? Why don't you send me the text and I'll let you know."
A few minutes later the text arrives. Several small documents on automotive technology. Easy stuff, unless...
"What variant of English did you have in mind?"
"Uh... I don't know. British English I suppose. The customer didn't say."
And you didn't ask, either, you git, I thought. Ooops, scratch that. I'm American. Make it "you idiot".

One would think that language service providers would be aware of the important differences between language variants in English, Spanish, Portuguese and a host of other languages about which I know very little, because I don't pretend to provide service for all the world's languages, just from German German and occasionally from the Swiss variant into US English. San Gabriel Valley English to be more precise, with occasional bits of Oregon country thrown in for rustic flavor. We don't use no spanners. Boots are for wearing on feet, preferably with spurs, and bonnets are mostly out of fashion, except with the occasional surviving grandmother. So we don't do no steenkeen British automotive texts, because we pity the technicians in the UK who wouldn't understand a lot of it. Just like my auto mechanic in California wouldn't get far with a British repair manual most likely.

Now there are some fields and situations where I'm not too uncomfortable trying to follow British conventions for spelling, though I won't even pretend to know much about the peculiarities of insular punctuation or the rich British vocabulary one absorbs between floggings in school. What I find more disturbing is that the project manager never thought to ask the customer about the intended use of the translation and the preferences for usage. I recently did a certified legal translation for a client and sent it off for checking by a few pairs of eyes at the agency before producing the final stamped and sealed official version. The corrections came back - lots of them. One was legitimate, a typo I had missed I think. The rest was my beautiful American legalese defaced with British spelling. I went a bit nuts over that, in part because I don't know a thing about contract language and legal conventions in the UK, and the use of British spelling in this case might imply that I do. My choice of contract language in English is governed by my linguistic and cultural background as well as the guidelines for clear language in contracts taught in California law schools like USC in the late 1980s. This time the decision to mess with the text was based on an internal agency style guide that used British conventions. Once again, no one ever thought to ask the customer what was really needed.

Perhaps I'm old fashioned to believe that knowing the intended use of a translation and the variant of the target language to satisfy that intent is a fundamental requirement for professional service in most cases. If there's even a chance that British English is called for, I'll probably fend off the query and send it elsewhere. And I do admit to a certain secret delight in sending the prospects trotting off on a pilgrimage to find a competent British translator, armed perhaps with a few e-mail addresses and telephone numbers from me. Everyone wins: the prospect will probably get a translation, someone I know and like might get an interesting bit of work and make a new business acquaintance and I don't have to give another English lesson when I'd rather be burying fish heads in a meadow to bait the foxes.


  1. Here's one bit of continental punctuation that Japanese people occasionally use to get my goat;

    It should be ." and not ".

    But do they know why? No they do not.

    It's because the " print block is more rugged than the . print block and therefore less likely to get damaged. So the tough old double quotation mark has to go outside the punctuation mark to protect the poor little dotty fella from wear and tear.

    Which makes a lot of sense in a digital world. Let's continue to suffer because the Yanks were cheapskates at the turn of the last century.

  2. Hi Kevin,

    Nice article, but if I dare I'd like to be a little picky on one thing. The use of the word "Git". I always take this word to be something used as a strong insult for someone who has behaved deplorably, or sometimes used towards a good friend who does something bad that you would let a friend away with. But I don't think it means "idiot" at all.

    A quick check in Collins gives me this definition;

    git n. Brit. Sl. 1. A contemptible person, often a fool. 2. A bastard (from GET (in the sense: to beget, hence a bastard, fool)

    What do you think?


  3. What do I think, Paul? I think you've reiterated my point nicely. You can't trust an American to get the emotional and linguistic subtleties of British English right in many instances and vice versa. I defer to your judgment that I used the wrong word in this case (much too strong!); that's the risk incurred by agencies and customers who casually mix and match translators and projects without considering their cultural backgrounds. And saying "just use international English" (a line I often hear) doesn't do much to achieve a solution. All that does is indicate that one should aim for the broadest audience possible, but even the best intentions and great skill will often lead to failure in such an endeavor.

  4. You are not old-fashioned, my dear Kevin, you are just a highly professional linguist who deeply cares about the end product. Hilariously enough, all our direct clients always know exactly what kind of Spanish they want, and if they don't, we will brainstorm with them and usually reach a very quick resolution.

  5. Hi Kevin,

    Very nice and funny post, thank you!
    I don't think you're old-fashioned at all! I've been a freelancer for a few months and being a French translator myself I always ask for the type of French that is needed by the client. Unfortunately, it happened to me yesterday that a PM told me I was wasting his time because I asked him why and how the translation he required would be used.
    To me this is a golden rule and I'm sure that's how I will be able to sort out good agencies/PMs from bad outsourcers...

  6. Hi Kevin,

    I completely agree with you about the variants in English and other languages - and sympathise with you! (I think you know you're not alone on this one!)

    I always ask our customers what sort of English we should use for their translation just to avoid them complaining about us using "the wrong one" later. Even key-account managers working for advertising companies aren't always sure what type of English (or Spanish or whatever) their own corporate customers require - people just don't think about it. And if they're not sure, they'll ask for "international English" or a "moderate" type of English without any regional colouring or "fancy wording" (which sounds a bit dull to me).

    On a slightly different note, the BDÜ - our own translators' association and the largest one in Germany, with over 5,000 members - doesn't differentiate between language variants either in its online database listing members and their specialist areas. That's why agencies and direct customers sometimes ring me up after scouring it for short-term manpower and expect me to do an American translation even though I'm British (and want you to do a British translation even though you're American).

    This is a sorry state of affairs if you ask me. I've mentioned it to their head office, but nothing's changed yet. This deliberately misleading situation applies just as much to members who speak French, Spanish (Latin American v. European Spanish) or Portuguese (Brazilian v. European), too, and probably to a few other languages into the bargain. But I guess there are a few influential people in the BDÜ who feel it can only be of benefit to the members if customers are channelled in their direction (a powerful argument, but one that's not as professional as I'd expected).



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