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: 

 

 

Around the web – August 2020

The Scots-language version of Wikipedia hit the headlines this month when it was discovered that a US teenager was single-handedly responsible for “translating” (read “mangling”) thousands of pages. According to a quote in this article “the entries appeared to have been written out in English with individual words being looked up using online Scots translators. Words with no Scots replacements were then left in their English form”. Replacing one word by another is unfortunately all too often people’s view of what translation is. Thankfully, some of the other news stories and blog articles during August about translation and language shine a more positive light on our profession.

Right choice? The pros and cons of doing an MA in Translation Studies

  • To coincide with the publication of Elena Ferrante’s latest novel in English, the New York Times published an in-depth article about her translator, Ann Goldstein
  • “Women who write in Arabic face a double problem: They’re translated less often than men, and when they are, their books are often wrongly characterised”
  • Literary translator Charlie Coombe has set up a literary translation database covering publications, journals, review blogs, awards, contests, events, residencies, grants, funding, organisations and unions; see here for more details
  • Slate examined the complex politics behind bad translations on VisitMexico.com, the country’s flagship tourism website

The snafu surrounding Mexico’s tourism website shows how quickly a valuable digital asset can disintegrate in the wrong hands

  • Donald Trump’s linguistic quirks reveal the salesmanship-type language that has made his career, says The Economist

Donald Trump’s language offers insight into how he won the presidency

So, which Finnish words make the people of Finland (“the happiest people in the world”) happiest?

The last word: I was delighted to be featured translator this month on Maeva Cifuentes’ blog. You can read the article here.

Further reading:

Around the web – July 2020

Here’s your monthly round-up of articles and stories about language and translation for July 2020.

Sparkling and dazzling!

  • Offensive language: “If obscenities are used they should be spelled out in full,” says The Economist. On a more lighthearted note, the magazine also published a guide to the lingo of dating during a pandemic.
  • The racist origins of 7 common phrases. While they are rarely used in their original contexts today, knowing their racist origins casts expressions such as these in a different light.

Do you know the origins of “cakewalk”?

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt

  • July 4 and July 14 are national holidays in the USA and France respectively, and both occasions would normally be celebrated with firework displays. What do you know about the language of pyrotechnics?
  • 7 wacky words that originated in the USA.
  • A new writing system, the Ńdébé Script has been created to address the tonal distinctions and peculiarities of Nigerian languages. You can find out more about it here. (Incidentally, about 70% of the world’s languages incorporate tonal distinctions).

Meet the Ńdébé Script

With or without sprinkles?

Further reading:

Around the web – June 2020

Not surprisingly given the current news context, many of June 2020’s articles and stories about language and translation focused on inequalities.

Criticism of tone is generally a distraction strategy

  • “Girl boss”, “mompreneur” “she shed” … Are (previously neutral) words that have been made feminine patronising or empowering?

The origins of the term “she shed” are a bit murky, but it seems to have first appeared around 2015

When a speaker uses “dog-whistle” language they’re often passing a message which they intend listeners to hear, without saying things explicitly

In the US, ‘buzzard’ is another name for the turkey vulture, while in British English it’s used for birds of the genus Buteo.

Further reading:

 

Translators: specialists or experts?

In his book Wordpower, Edward De Bono says:

The difference between an expert and a specialist is that a specialist is looking forward in a certain well-defined direction, and an expert is looking backwards in the same direction. A specialist goes on narrowing their field in order to increase their concentration of knowledge in an area. An expert is satisfied that they know all there is to know and is trying to widen their field on the assumption that their expertise will widen with it.

Although “expert” and “specialist” tend to be used interchangeably, based on De Bono’s definition I would say that as translators we are specialists, specialists who produce expert translations. (Bearing in mind that anyone can call themselves a specialist, however they may produce inexpert translations).

When we translate in a certain field (be it technology, law, medicine, or marketing) it’s generally because we have specialist knowledge of that field, through study and/or previous employment. We can often prove this specialisation through tangible, objective criteria such as qualifications. It can be difficult to say the same for an expert; we may be experts as well as specialists, but ‘expert’ is generally a title bestowed upon us by others, who recognise our expertise for what it truly is.

What are your thoughts on the subject?

 

Around the web – May 2020

Do you know how the month of May got its name? It may (pun intended) seem a simple word, but the origin is actually fairly complex and interesting. We could say the same about several articles listed here in the May 2020 round-up of this month’s most popular stories about language, translation and interpreting.

was Maia a Greek or Roman goddess?

Off-colour and on the mend

Esther Kim interviews the translator of “Friend”, Immanuel Kim

#ThatTranslatorCanCook week 41: Sausage Rougail

 

Further reading:

Around the web – April 2020

Just like last month, I’ve divided this round-up of April’s stories about language and translation into two sections: links that are either related or unrelated to COVID. Take your pick, or read both parts!

Non-COVID:

  • During lockdown you may find yourself at a loose end (if you’re in the UK) or at loose ends (if you’re in the US). Lynne Murphy took a closer look. She also examined how the expression “on the up-and-up” means different things in the two countries.

Are you at a loose end or at loose ends?

Things that don’t change? Leopards and their spots

Have you found your ‘power song’?

COVID-related:

What has a hamster got to do with pandemic parlance?

 

Further reading:

Around the web – March 2020

Although we were all aware of COVID-19 when I posted my last round-up on 29th February, I think few of us could have imagined the situation we’re living through right now. Today, instead of listing articles by order of popularity as I normally do, and in case you’re fed up of hearing about the coronavirus, I’ve divided this blog post into two sections: links that are either related or unrelated to COVID. It’s interesting to note in this (longer-than-normal) post that the majority of March’s most popular articles were actually the latter.

Links unrelated to COVID-19:

A message to our sponsors

A senses of vastness

Many see “social distancing” to be the greatest pandemic-era addition the vernacular yet.

COVID-19-related posts:

When language goes viral

What’s the difference between “quarantine” and “isolation”?

 

Further reading:

Around the web – February 2020

Although February is a short month even in a leap year, there were plenty of language-related news stories and articles. Here’s your round-up of the most popular:

Interpreters work in a booth in Singapore.

How do you say “quidditch” in Yiddish?

Boiled eggs, British (left) and US style

Hare’s breath or hair’s breadth?

 

Further reading:

Language podcasts

A recent request from a colleague on Facebook looking for interesting podcasts to listen to got me compiling the following list. I’ve listed podcasts that are about language, translation and/or interpreting, but none about language learning (there are plenty out there if that’s what you’re looking for). Depending on how much time you have available you might want to listen to all of a podcast’s episodes or just cherrypick here and there. The list is in alphabetical order and, with one exception, only includes podcasts in English.

Other language podcasts*:

  • ATA also has a more general podcast
  • The History of English is a chronological history of the English language examined through the lens of historical events that shaped the development and spread of the language
  • Lexicon Valley is hosted by linguist John McWhorter
  • Lingthusiam by Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne is enthusiastic about linguistics
  • Three Percent podcasts is a weekly(ish) conversation about new books, the publishing scene, international literature in translation, and many other random rants and raves
  • Caroline Alberoni hosts the TradTalk podcast (mainly in Portuguese)
  • Troublesome Terps is subtitled “The podcast about things that keep interpreters up at night”. Also by Alexander Drechsel along with his  fellow interpreters Sarah Hickey, Jonathan Downie, and Alexander Gansmeier as well as the occasional guest
  • Long-running A Way With Words looks at language through family, history, and culture

*podcasts that I don’t or no longer listen to, mainly due to lack of time!

Further reading:

What language-related podcasts do you listen to? Let me know in the comments!