Cultural and linguistic misunderstandings make for some awkward situations, sometimes innocently funny, sometimes unfortunate.
The latest high profile language blunder came, according to the Financial Times, from Irena Andrassy, Croatia's permanent representative in Brussels, who appears to have said, at the final meeting of EU ambassadors ahead of Britain's exit: “thank you, goodbye, and good riddance”. She says she thought the expression meant "good luck".
Like a vast majority of highly educated and travelled European civil servants, she speaks English in her professional dealings. She does not use an interpreter to express herself in English in public. She most likely writes herself all her emails and reports in English, no need for a translator. However, she is not native** of it and mistakes on idioms and culturally marked expressions are bound to happen.
It's not an issue within the private sphere, including publications on social media in one's own name, meeting peers, at the supermarket, restaurant or any other functional situation. An international company might choose English* as their internal communication language. Emails and memos and phone calls are all in English - labelled then as "broken", "globish", "dunglish" or any other term indicating a type of non-native English widely used by a group of people - the kind I use when I publish something on social media in fact. And it's fine. The objective is to get a functional message across, not to impress anyone or have those words recorded for posterity during a Historical meeting.
It is, however, a serious deal when dealing with official guidelines, Health and Safety leaflets or users' manuals for machinery and so on. And a big - potentially money-losing - deal when issuing official statements, publishing marketing material, launching a product, or displaying a website. Some companies might use one of their employees - "Hans from Accounting spent a year in London, he can write this". Other might just put their trust in friends - the niece of someone's neighbour who is "quite good with languages" and is "really happy to translate this for exposure". And some even just use Google Translate, or any other online translation tool, and make do with the (still) unreliable output. The savvier ones look for professional copywriters or translators, but hire the cheapest they can find, whether through a proper agency or a We-do-it-Fast-and-Cheap business. They say they do not have the budget to have their material done by the right - native and trained - professional.
The thing is, how much more will it cost them to miss on a business deal with a potential client who felt unimpressed by their lack of cultural sensitivity? What are the costs of an injured employee who followed some badly-translated tool's instructions? How much would it hurt to butcher the launch of a beautiful product the company spent months producing, and had a team of marketing experts working on a campaign in their original language, with a slogan sent to be "just translated" instead of properly adapted, transcreated, recreated by a professional? And by properly I mean that said professional was given a reasonable deadline to do their work, a complete briefing and a fair payment.
Only time will say how the now-famous wishes of Ms Andrassy will be remembered but it's a good example of how assumptions of one's knowledge of a language can lead to rather unpleasant consequences. Contrary to the widespread belief, knowing one or two languages at a certain level does not make you a specialist in translating or writing, nor knowing how to play "Fur Elise" makes you a concert pianist or cutting your bangs in your bathroom makes you a professional hairdresser. We've all been there, it's not pretty.
Do yourself a favour and ask a pro next time you want your words to be effective in getting you that business deal you've worked so hard for. The fact is, not everybody can English* but a native, qualified, trained and experienced translator or copywriter does.
* Change the language to any that applies to you. For me, it's French and Portuguese, of which I am native. English is only one of my source languages.
** More on the notion of native in another article.
A reference to the unfortunate historical last words can be found here:
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I'm coming back from a book sales. I'd usually be carrying a huge load of books, but not this time.
Because I felt sad and disappointed.
And furious, yes.
More than 70% of the books I was interested in did not mention the translator's name.
The author, of course, the editor, the publisher, the graphic designer, the guy who did the introduction, the photographer and so forth. Many carried "bestseller" stamps. Some even had exerts of reception critics in the translated language by known critics or other authors, praising the book's reception in the country.
Still no mention of the translator.
Sure, there were children books and travel/culture books in the mixt, some would say it does not matter.
But it does.
How do they think the book could be such a huge success if it had not been translated with talent?
Is the translator not an essential part of the good reception of the book?
I know that a good translation is one where the text flows so flawlessly and effortlessly that no one can say there was a translator, but still...it infuriates me.
So please, if you are a translator, fight for your name to be included. If you are a client, ask why the translator is not named.
And if you are in the position to publish a book, make it a habit to #namethetranslator
Language attrition is a well-known problem for anyone who lived in another country than their own for some time.
What I do on a daily base to avoid losing either my French or my Portuguese (a feeling I know well and fear), besides trying to keep up with my favourite authors when something new is published, is to read news and popular articles, even sometimes silly ones for they are a goldmine for new terms and slang etc..., watch movies and tv series when possible, listen to the radio, to podcasts. Some days it will be more French others more Portuguese.
As a language teacher, I speak both on a daily base, but often a polished version of it, the one acceptable in the classroom.
As a translator I am able to work on all registers but it takes the effort above described for me to be able to provide for the right term when it's something recent in the culture.
Some days are a true challenge when one language takes over all the others.
Then, the only solution is a nice phone call to a dear friend or to family, to just chat and get the groove back.
Losing your first language? Here’s how to rediscover your voice
Expats are often shaky in their mother tongue. But fear not: the fight in the brain known as language attrition can be stopped
Monika Schmid is a professor in linguistics at the University of EssexTue 3 Apr 2018 12.28 BSTLast modified on Wed 4 Apr 2018 10.39 BST
‘In a foreign context, expats like me feel like a fish out of water or, perhaps more accurately, like a sea lion.’ Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer
When a former PhD candidate recently asked me to write a reference for her, I found myself facing an unexpected dilemma. She is a wonderful person and a brilliant scientist whom any employer should consider themselves lucky to recruit, and I’m delighted to provide a reference saying just that.
The problem lies in the fact that the job is a lectureship for teaching German. I’m German myself, as is she, and so I felt I should write the letter in German.
I couldn’t do it.
First off, I no longer trust my German spelling. This is partly because the spelling rules have changed in the 20 years since I left, partly because I spoke and wrote Dutch for a long time, where many words sound quite similar but are spelled differently, and partly because my knowledge has simply eroded. What’s more, words elude me and I’m often no longer sure if they mean exactly what I think they mean.
My grammar is restructuring itself along the lines of English, which in German translates to simpler, less sophisticated sentences. None of this, I felt, would shine a good light on the candidate.I’m not alone in experiencing this. Having spent any length of time – and this can be as little as a few months – in a foreign context, expats like me tend to feel like fish out of water or, perhaps more accurately, like sea lions out of water: we can survive, yes, but movements that otherwise are natural, fluid and efficient become a huge effort. We flap, we fumble, we wobble along, feeling and looking slightly ridiculous.
In linguistic terms, this means that we um and ah a lot more. We pause more often. Our sentences go wrong in the middle, and we have to backtrack. Our vocabulary becomes less sophisticated, and our grammar less complex. And there are more subtle effects, to do with the different ways in which politeness and social interaction differ across languages.
What is considered appropriate and polite varies hugely between countries
For example, English has only one pronoun – “you” – to address others. Many other languages make the distinction between a familiar and a formal or polite pronoun: for example, French tu and vous, or Spanish tu and usted. There are no clear, straightforward rules telling you in which context to use a formal and in which a familiar pronoun, and what is considered appropriate and polite varies hugely between countries.
For example, in the Netherlands I became used to addressing the Rector Magnificus of my university with the informal pronoun and by his first name. In Germany, one was expected to call him Your Magnificence (I’m not making this up). Using a familiar pronoun, let alone a first name, would have been unthinkable. Not only have conventions changed over the past 20 years, but I feel that I’ve entirely lost my sense of what’s appropriate in any given situation.
Many of these phenomena of what is called language attrition are quite similar to the changes in language use often found in the very early stages of dementia – although, of course, the underlying cognitive processes are completely different. Language attrition is not a neurological condition, but comes about because two languages are fighting it out in one brain. Like people living with dementia, those experiencing language attrition are faced with the stark reality that we assess and judge people based on how well and how confidently they use language. When linguistic performance becomes compromised, intelligence, capability, and overall cognitive functioning are underestimated.
Unlike people living with dementia, people with language attrition may take comfort in the fact that these symptoms are unlikely to persist or get much worse, and that reimmersion in the native language will probably make them disappear within a few weeks.
But for 3 million EU citizens living in the UK and 1 million Britons on the continent, many of whom may now be contemplating a return to their home country because of Brexit, language attrition could be a real problem. A badly spelled or clumsily worded letter of application, a fumbling and hesitant performance at interview, or – horror of horrors – an inappropriate use of a pronoun or a first name, or the omission of a honorific title, may ruin any chance to prove yourself in the job. Such errors are, of course, completely unrelated to how competent you are to carry out a particular function – but that will not provide much comfort if language attrition has cost you the job of your dreams.
AdvertisementSo what should you do if you are thinking of going back on the job market in the country of your birth? Here are some tips that may come in handy:
• Always have all documents you submit checked by a fully competent native speaker who is currently living there.
• Think yourself into the language, starting as early as possible. Play out the conversations you may expect to have in the job interview. Consider not only specialised key terms but also the ways in which you will interact with the members of the panel. Do this out loud.
• If possible, look up who the panel members are and what their titles are. If you are unsure, ask a fully competent native speaker what the proper way is to address them. Practise this.
• If you are unsure about certain technical terms or specialised vocabulary, make a cheat sheet for yourself, and don’t feel embarrassed about referring to it during the interview.
• If you can, arrange a mock interview with friends or family who share your native language.
Some of this may seem over the top – but it could make the difference between you feeling like a graceful sea creature in its element or a clumsy lump of lard wobbling along on dry land.
This article was originally published on The Conversation