Multilingual London: mosaic of “Englishes”

Although we tend to talk about English as if it is something monolithic, there are numerous Englishes. Tune into the conversations happening around you in a café or on the Tube, and you’ll make out a mosaic of variants.

So claims an interesting article entitled “Language can’t stay still – just listen to London” in London’s Evening Standard earlier this week. The author Henry Hitchings has just writen a book on “proper English” and relays a story which will sound familiar to many Londoners:
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Signs of confusion

A newspaper snippet the other day set me thinking about the problems any copywriter or translator can face in getting a wording which is not only accurate but also pleases their client.

It seems Tesco have been having problems with the signs at their express checkouts which are deigned for customers with a small amount of shopping. They have long raised hackles among the grammatically pedantic with the sign’s wording of “10 items or less”. Some argued the signs should read “10 items or fewer” which, while it might be technically correct, sounds clumsy.

Tesco asked various English experts which was right but got contradictory advice. In the end they consulted the Plain English campaign who suggested “up to 10 items” – and this is what Tesco will be using in future.

Sadly, as many people have pointed out, this introduces a new confusion as to whether exactly 10 items is acceptable or not!

If experts in English grammar cannot agree on the wording for something so simple as a sign, it is little wonder matters get even more complicated when another language is involved. Translators often find clients changing their translation to something they feel happier with – regardless of whether the original translation was perfectly understandable or not.

The important point is to negotiate a wording that is clear and that both the author and reader take the same meaning from. The only way to do that is see translation and copywriting as a two way process, where communication is the key to refining a final wording.