Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Step 2: how to admit an error

January 20, 2011

Last time I wrote a post, I was talking about the importance of being able to change tack. You may have noticed one famous Bill Gates quote I didn’t use:

”64kb ought to be enough for anybody”

And why? Because Gates denies he ever said it. I have no comment on that, I certainly wasn’t there at the time.

It makes you think, though: is there some sort of hierarchy of ways to change direction? Like (1) I made a mistake [could lead to trouble] or (2) I’ve changed my mind [much nicer, mature reflection on display] or (3) I’ve thought of something even better [hmmm, could look like a disguised “made a mistake”, but if true very positive, improving on ideas] and lastly (4) I never said it, I never did it [controversial maybe, but very good way of avoiding all discussion unless contested by witnesses!].

Perhaps a useful hierarchy to bear in mind, depending on who you’re talking to and what kind of press coverage you might get.

In case you’re wondering why I got onto this topic, I was translating something about error culture (not containing the material in this and my last post) so it was in my mind. These jottings are not a more subtle, twisty and deluxe way of admitting a specific mistake than those described above, just a bit of fun.

Acknowledging mistakes could win you millions

October 2, 2010

There is a wealth of management literature about mistakes. Tolerating mistakes, so that employees’ creativity isn’t stifled by fear of sanctions. Managing mistakes, so that companies know how to avoid them in future, and also learn about how to do things better.

One of the biggest issues, of course, is the difficulty individuals and corporations can have in admitting errors – possibly because of ensuing trouble, but also perhaps through a fear of losing their own or others’ esteem.

This is particularly dangerous if it prevents a crucial change of course.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates seems to be a world champion of business-saving U-turns. Most of us are familiar with the juicy quotes:

 “There’s nobody getting rich writing software that I know of.”

 “We [Microsoft] will never make a 32-bit operating system.”

 “The Internet? We are not interested in it.”

 Actions speak louder than words, so maybe there is no need to ask how he handled the retractions. But just imagine what could have happened to him and to Microsoft if he had stuck obstinately by his original stated opinions.

Only words – or is it?

July 13, 2010

Just recently I translated a presentation that had been extracted from its visual PowerPoint background. Possibly because of the size of the file, maybe the visuals weren’t ready, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, I felt really lost, though when I finally received the finished product for proof reading it looked fine. And fortunately the client was happy for me to see the whole thing and didn’t take the view that if I had done my job properly the words would be okay and therefore the whole thing should look right.

In this case there were no puns or any other traps, my main concern was whether the text length would fit in with the visuals. However, I can think of two past cases where the pictures were crucial.

Case 1: Many years ago, I and my then team translated a book of animal fables from Dutch. In the last story, a group of birds  emigrated to find a better world. The black-headed gull was the cook among them. After reading the English about three times this struck me as odd – no rhyme or reason to it. Further consultation of the Dutch text explained it: the Dutch word for a black-headed gull is “kokmeeuw”, the Dutch word for a cook is “kok”. Nice pun, but I had missed it entirely. So I rejigged the staffing assignments and made the kookaburra the cook. Good thinking, eh? One small snag: some time after delivering the text I realised there were visuals I had never seen – I only hope they didn’t depict a black-headed gull happily making poffertjes.

Case 2: A more recent promotional text had as the main instruction that each sentence in the source language was focused on a specific strong noun, and that the corresponding word in English also had to be a noun and mean the same (yes, I know it sounds obvious, but there are times when a necessary change of metaphor can throw wordplays in the original text into dire confusion, see case 1 above). So the original brief was tough enough to start with, given the English-language predilection for verb constructions. When I looked at the visuals – which the client had been thoughtful enough to provide – I realised there was an added complication: each sentence went over a two-page spread, and the graphics “bled” into the text space. So in addition to the requirement to copy the source sentence structure without violating English/US sensibilities, the key word also had to be in roughly the same  position in the sentence so that it was in a prominent position, on the left-hand side of the page and not buried in swathes of colour or falling down the fold in the middle. It must have been very difficult in the source language, but even more so in the translation where the normal syntax would be different.

Clients, remember to mention visuals if they are available. Translators, if there are clear signs there should be graphics (fig. references or giveaways like “as you can see from the graph above…), ask for them. You could save yourselves anything from time to embarrassment.

Visiting Cologne

May 24, 2010

At the end of April, I spent just under a week visiting my old boss  in Cologne, Germany. What a wonderful city she showed me, from old familiar sights like the Cathedral to a cologne (the perfume kind) museum, art museums including the very wonderful Wallraf-Richartz Museum and Insel Hombroich, a visit to the Zeche Zollverein in Essen, parks, the river bank. Not least of the sights was the railway bridge, “decorated” with what looked from a distance like bunting but turned out to be throngs of padlocks celebrating marriages. It was a week with triple benefits: renewing friendship, sight-seeing and – “last not least”, as the Germans love to say, a chance to polish up my spoken German.

The problem with a German conversation

January 14, 2010

Life as a translator is difficult. There are some words you just can’t quite pin down.

One of my recent favourites is Gespräch. It can mean an informal conversation. It can mean a telephone call. It can mean an interview: a job interview, appraisal interview etc. etc. It can also, however, mean a group discussion. I recently came across an example which had been (correctly enough) translated as “moderated interview” (“moderated” being another problem – more commonly “facilitated” in English, but “moderated” is used in the same meaning, and in a multilingual environment using the cognate has its charms) – followed later in the same project by two files which used the same word to describe a situation where a manager talked to all of his/her staff. You do get panel interviews in English, but the description made it clear it was a multi-party discussion, not necessarily a group on one side, an individual on the other.

The trouble is, though, it is best to use one term if people may be looking for the topic on an intranet or whatever. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with “interview/discussion” in that context, though.

Is there a cover-all word in English? Dialogue also implies only two sides. Discussion can be two people or more, but in a formal situation you would never use it – “I went to company X for a job discussion last week”? I don’t think so.

Should we invent one? Multilogue? Verbal interaction? – “I went to company X for a job verbal interaction last week”??? Naaa.

The fun begins for the translator when Gespräch is translated one way for the one-on-one meeting, then pops up its head again weeks or months later as the group version – but term 1 is already established in the company, and if there is no distinction in the source language it is often hard to convince people that there has to be a distinction in the target. And in cases like the above the words have to fit into systems, so you can’t dismiss it by doing it differently on a case-by-case basis.

Even back in my days as a student 30 years ago some translation theory was about things that are understood or perceived differently in different cultures – one nation’s red is another’s orange, our black grapes are the Germans’ blue grapes etc. I remember once, many years ago, spending much time and sweat trying to get a development engineer to tell me whether the word “Achse” in a technical text was an “axle” or an “axis”. A colleague apparently had the same experience quite recently. In German, there is no distinction between the words – but it took me years to get my head round the fact that there is also no difference between the concepts. All languages and nations have examples of this, as in the familiar one that to the Anglo-Saxons “snow” is only one word, whereas to the Inuit there are many distinctions, each with its own term. Since the days of high-speed rail, of course, the UK is naturally familiar with the notion that there are different kinds of snow, in particular the wrong kind.

As in my last blog entry, it all adds to the richness of the job and of operating in a multi-lingual, multi-cultural context. There are times when easy answers would be nice, though.

Language never ceases to amaze

December 20, 2009

I was walking past a branch of a well-known supermarket chain yesterday, and saw this sign (not replicated word for word) “By the year XXXX, none of our packaging needs go to landfill”. Maybe I misread it, will check again next time I’m passing. But the fact remains: why does it have to be “none of our packaging need go to landfill”, while “none of our packaging needs to go to landfill” is fine? Is the first one a subjunctive? New Year’s Resolution must be to investigate.

Why does “to sanction” mean “to approve”, while  “to impose sanctions” is to penalise by restrictions? Is any reason needed or do we just need to resign ourselves?

Why has the phrase “that begs the question”, which used to mean “that evades the question” suddenly come to mean “that calls for/raises the question” within a few short years?

Yours enriched but confused by linguistic twists, Helen

Hello world!

September 3, 2009

Not too long ago, I uttered the words “Blogging? If I ever feel tempted to start pouring my heart out in writing I’ll buy a diary and make a fool of myself in private instead.”

Famous last words.