Translators, are you guilty of nerdview?

Nerdview. What’s that then? A term first coined by Geoff Pullum of Language Log in 2008, it can be defined as taking the perspective of an insider when attempting to communicate with an end-user or client who couldn’t possibly have the same perspective. The insider may be a designer, engineer, sign maker, or simply someone forgetting that not everyone has the same knowledge they themselves have. And although you may never have heard of the term before, you will certainly have come across instances. Here are a few examples:

  • “For external use only – instead of “Do not eat or drink”
  • “Restroom closes 15 minutes before closing” – but the sign doesn’t say when closing time is
  • “Use all doors” (when boarding a train) or “Form two lanes” (on a motorway) – no one individual can obey this!
  • “Out of fan-fold tickets” (on an airport car-park ticket vending machine) – the motorist needs to know what to do about parking if he can’t get a ticket; only the technical operative needs to know to load fan-fold ticket stock
  • “This refuse has been checked for illegal presentation” – there’s a whole Language Log post on this one!

From the examples you can see lack of clarity seems to be a particular problem in the transport industry. And while it can be enough of an issue in a monolingual context, think of our work as translators. How many times have you translated nerdview in your source language into nerdview in your target language? Or translated a perfectly understandable source-language instruction into target-language nerdview because you’re sticking too closely to the source language? Depending on how much leeway you have with your work, you may be able to change your translation sufficiently for it not to be a problem, or you might need to translate it per se and flag the issue to the client, especially if nerdview is entrenched in the source text.

Although several of the examples above would seem to indicate it’s a particular problem in the transport industry, personally I’ve found subtle nerdview can sometimes be a problem in tourism texts too. I live and work in Reunion Island, a French overseas department in the Indian Ocean. People who live in mainland France know of the tropical island, and they’re aware of its major attractions (e.g. the volcano), as well as the fact that its currency, health, legal, educational and telecommunications systems are identical or quasi-identical to that of mainland France. But if you’re working on a text that takes knowledge of these facts for granted you’re not doing your readership any favours by translating without putting yourself in the reader’s shoes. They will probably never have heard of the “famous this” or the “well-known that” so you have to take such factors into account if you’re to craft a reader-friendly text. There can also be a cultural element: with some languages there is more of a “comprehension burden” on readers to understand what the writer is saying.

Language log suggested the following normative principal:

When issuing a message for the guidance of the public, phrase it to make sense from their perspective, and avoid language that presumes an insider or system-design perspective that they cannot possibly have.

For translators, I would paraphrase this and say:

When translating, phrase your work to make sense from the reader’s perspective, and avoid translations that presume an inside-knowledge perspective that readers cannot possibly have.

I’m sure you have plenty of your own examples of nerdview – feel free to post them in the comments!

Further reading: