Wednesday, 20 June 2012

It's More Than Words: “I understand what they’re saying, but I don’t know what they mean”

Heard the one about the Bangkok dry cleaners who invited their foreign clients to “drop your trousers here and have a good time”? Or the Japanese hotel who invited guests to take advantage of the chambermaid? A Swiss restaurant was proud that their wines “leave you nothing to hope for”.  A Black Sea resort guided visitors to the beach and assured them that they were welcome to it.
These are translation gaffes apparently gathered from around the world by airline staff, and whether they’re true or not, do show that translation is a minefield.
To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with any of the grammar or the choice of the words. And the sentiments are very well-meaning. But these examples make a serious point. However painstakingly put together, they do not mean what the writer wanted them to mean, and the result, at least to English speakers, can be hilarious. Of course, in these cases, there’s no harm done. But General Motors executives were not laughing when they had to re-brand their “Nova” car in Mexico. In Spanish, “no va” means “ doesn’t work”.  At Heathrow, an operative threw the panic lever when he discovered a crate marked “bombas”, which in Portuguese can mean two things – bombs or pumps. The fact that airline terrorists aren’t usually so helpful in labelling their merchandise didn’t occur to anyone.
Communication Competence
Such mistakes can cost fortunes and illustrate the requisite for any company operating internationally, which these days can be almost any company, to have what can be termed communication competence. That is, the ability to recognize the underlay of meaning in any exchange – written or spoken. Within our own language, to extract precisely the meaning of any stretch of language can be difficult enough. How many times have you struggled with a device whose instruction leaflet, although in English, is unintelligible?
But taken to an international dimension in commerce, you have to be even more diligent, more aware of the linguistic setting. It doesn't matter what the transaction, an error can be a costly one. From the simplest transaction of obtaining money on holiday, through to marketing a new product, or to negotiating the intricacies of a cross-border contract, you can’t take anything for granted.
The Role of the Translator
So what about the role of the translator? In literature the translator can bring a creative touch to the material, which is almost as vital as the author’s.  But in the corporate world, the translator can often be seen as an academic inconvenience, unskilled, even, in the ways of trade. And now automatic translation programs such as Google Translate and Yahoo! Babel Fish, which, to be fair, can be invaluable tools, often provide the cost-cutters with an excuse to dispense with the human translator altogether.
But an able native speaking translator can help a company to avoid commercial disasters, especially when it comes to slang, colloquialisms, abbreviations and other linguistic subtleties. The translator’s brief must be to preserve meaning and nuance to translated content, for this can ensure commercial success.
The Power of Language
Take the law.  Legal power, it is said, resides solely in language. What about the growing numbers of foreign nationals, legally resident or not, who need recourse to the law? In many cases, there simply aren’t enough translators to go round for minority languages, so dialogue within the tribunal or the courtroom can be blocked. Even where translation services are readily available, a person’s life consequences can depend on a fair, accurate rendition of the facts.  The translator wields significant power within the law.
Of course, English speakers have it easy. The world has never seen a language so widespread, so strategically located around the globe, with American English at the core of the explosion.  Travelling around the world you’ll witness Russians speaking to Koreans, Chinese negotiating in Brazil, Spaniards writing to Finns, all in English.
It can be argued that this makes English native speakers lazy. And it’s a fact that the demand for foreign language learning by native English speakers is shamefully low.  In some cultures, a family will have, as well as their GP or dentist, their English teacher. But language is fixed by need – and right now English native speakers don’t feel the need to learn a foreign language.
The fact is that if we were more interested in foreign languages, we’d become more interested, and more proficient, in foreign cultures.

by Imogen Reed

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