All posts by Sarah Silva

Export services not language

Language is business. It’s not just a tool for businesses to communicate with each other. Languages export and import words.

We’re very generous with the English language and frequently allow our words to spread across the world and infiltrate any language that we come into contact with. I suspect it’s mainly to do with American culture, Hollywood and the language of technology but I’ll play my part.

I remember my French teacher saying ahead of a French oral exam, if you’re absolutely stuck and can’t think of the word, try the English word with a French accent. There’s a chance you’ll get it right (A friend then tried “grape” which unfortunately is “raisin” in French but it was worth a try.) Can you see where English tourists that gesticulate and speak louder to be understood get their arrogance from? I bet non-native speakers learning English don’t get those ‘handy’ tips. Say the Croatian word with an English accent, you never know, they might understand you, hmmm. 

It’s not only our words that get exported, English grammar and sentence structure is spreading too.

In English we say something makes sense, which in German should be es hat Sinn. But now many Germans say “es macht Sinn” a direct translation of the English. I’ve said it too, thinking it was genuine German. I’ve also said Ich rufe Sie zurück (direct translation from ‘I’ll call you back’) instead of Ich rufe Sie wieder an.

Let’s not even get into gedownloadet or downgeloadet instead of heruntergeladen (downloaded) – even as a native English speaker I prefer the original German.

The problem with this happening is that the distinctions between languages get blurred. 

Denglisch (a mish mash of Deutsch and English) arises when people who speak both languages use German words or structures when speaking or writing English.

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Rucksack is another word we’ll keep, thank you

Although the English language may have adopted a fair few German terms like Schadenfreude, Fest, Doppelganger etc., German grammar constructions and literal translations are less well received and highlight the differences. If you want your English-speaking clients to focus on your message without getting distracted by minor yet common errors, make sure you get your texts checked by a native speaker.

It makes the difference between a journal accepting a research paper… or not. A website visitor finding what they need… or not. Sealing the deal with your international distributor… or not – because they rightly or wrongly suspect they’ll have to do unnecessary extra work reproducing and correcting documentation before giving it to their clients.

It’s not what you say, but how you say it (Der Ton macht die Musik) that has the biggest impact.

High demand for unofficial language

International English under the microscope

Walk into any supermarket to buy carrots and you have a decision to make: do you buy those bunched with leaves, the rough and ready ‘wonky’ type, cleaned and packaged, or baby carrots? It may surprise you to know that baby carrot is a misleading term. Most of these delicate little carrots aren’t plucked from the ground prematurely, they’re simply sculpted from larger, rougher carrots and sold under a different name. ‘Invented’ in the 1980s by Californian farmer, Mike Yurosek, the original aim was to tackle waste and sell more carrots. Today, baby carrots dominate the industry and made up over 54 % of all carrot sales in 2020. Impressive for a product that didn’t exist 50 years ago. 

In a similar vein, international English doesn’t technically exist as an official language variant. But it’s in high demand.

What is international English?

It’s used to refer to English that would be appropriate for an international audience without being culturally bound to a particular English-speaking group. As a British person, I’ll naturally write and translate into British English, but should your corporate style be US-English spelling, I can switch to that. It’s the same as European Portuguese or Brazilian Portuguese, they differ and the difference is critical if you’re selling to one particular market. But if you want to sell to both audiences, you need to find some common ground.

International English is that common ground for the English language. Over 1.35 billion people worldwide speak English and only about 360 million of those are native speakers. A greater proportion speak it as a second language. This includes those who use English as a business language or choose English for preference out of the languages available on a website – but who aren’t native speakers. 

Who is your reader?

If you’re exporting your products and services and want English translation, you probably want to use English to communicate with international clients rather than ‘just’ those in Australia or the US or Great Britain. Perhaps for business partners in China, Latin America and across Europe, people with wildly different cultures and frames of reference. Your English translation needs to be accurate and consistent in its chosen spelling and grammar but accessible to the broadest possible audience.

A key aspect of international English is that it is written to avoid any specific cultural references that would be relevant to a small section of the target audience.

Why you need to avoid cultural references

You may be talking about autumn in October while your southern hemisphere readers are enjoying spring. The relevant associations you’re making in your text won’t land in the same way and your message becomes less compelling.

Let’s say you include a football metaphor in your text. A British reader will understand the intended context and envisage a match between teams such as Chelsea versus Tottenham Hotspurs (other teams are available). This game in the US would be called soccer because football refers to American football, an entirely different game involving heavy padding and helmets for protection. Which is called Gridiron locally in Australia. Throw non-native English readers into the mix and a throwaway reference in your text becomes a cultural minefield. 

If you’re writing for an international audience, the references you use are just as important as the language. Especially if you want your reader to focus on your message and not be distracted by an unintentional ambiguity.

Website visitors may click away, customers might not follow your instructions, business partners may not grasp the finer details of your offer. 

Simple is always best so make language work harder for you without involving idioms, complex word play, or specific cultural references to practices that would baffle a tourist.

Doesn’t that make it boring?

Accessibility to a wider audience doesn’t have to mean a text becomes boring, stripped of its clever comparisons and only straightforward information left behind. It just means you and your translator need to work smarter. 

Instead of referencing the Pfand deposit system, talk about recycling in general. Instead of a football metaphor, you could talk about bikes or a sports concept common to everyone. If your goal is more international interest in your work, keep these readers in mind as you write and your efforts are sure to hit the back of the net… er, score a home run… um, a hole in one.

Or write whatever you like and send your text to me to revise and adapt where appropriate.

Searching a globe with a magnifying glass
Searching for that elusive lingua franca

Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) conference 2021: Evolving in Changing Times

Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) conference 2021: Evolving in Changing Times

Linguists unite!

On 12-14 May, language professionals in the UK and abroad gathered online for the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) conference 2021: Evolving in Changing Times.

Besides keeping up to date with industry trends, the latest technology, and participating in fascinating panel discussions, the event challenged me to reflect on my own translation and editing methods. As a qualified ITI member, I’m committed to continuous professional development to ensure my clients get a great service and this was the perfect opportunity to hone my skills. A couple of sessions highlighted some techniques that are useful for anyone writing content.

Editing tips and tricks

When translating a text, it can be quite hard to distance yourself from the original language and entirely avoid “source language interference” where a German sentence structure is retained in the English. It isn’t always possible to leave a couple of days between translation and proofreading (to ‘forget’ the German), which is why translators work with revisers/proofreaders. 

But there are a few other tricks and tips you can use, whether you’re translating or editing a text in your own language. Colleagues suggest reading your text in another font, or on a different coloured background to fool your brain into looking at the text in another light. Another approach is to use the text-to-speech function on software such as Microsoft Word to listen to the text so you can hear any sections that sound a bit stilted.

Jousting translators

One of my favourite sessions was the German translation slam. This was a head-to-head context in which two translators translated the same text into English and compared their approaches in front of an audience. A couple of the German texts used were from a Mercedes Benz magazine from a few years ago and provoked a lot of discussion about political correctness and style choices. While each translator put their own spin on the text, they ultimately decided a combined version would work perfectly. However, one critical element was missing: You, the client. 

Without having a translation brief, knowing client preferences or style, or what the author/client wants to achieve, there were a lot of unanswered questions. A text could take an entirely different direction, especially in the creative field. So if you have specific requirements, goals, or any other insights into your intended audience for a translation, do share with your translator. It provides excellent guidance when choosing the right phrases and ensures you get the results you want.

A funny finale

At the closing ceremony we enjoyed jokes and a chat with Henning Wehn – the self-proclaimed German Comedy Ambassador to the UK. He discussed language, the non-translatability of jokes and culture and poked fun at both Brits and Germans. The perfect finale for a bunch of language nerds.