Welsh translation is out of the office

Another day, another story of the dangers of non-expert translation. Officials at a Welsh council needed a road sign translated from English to Welsh, and unsuspectingly used the Welsh response to their email request.

Unfortunately for them, and to the hilarity of local Welsh speakers, the response was actually an automated “out of office” response.

As Dylan Iorwerth of Welsh-language magazine Golwg commented, “When they’re proofing signs, they should really use someone who speaks Welsh”.

We couldn’t agree more!

How would you answer “Fit like ma loon?”

Me I stood and let my jaw drop, wondering what language it was. In fact it turned out the question was in English. Or at least the variant of it spoken in the north east of Scotland. I was asked the question when introducing myself to a family I was to stay with in a small town on the Spey Valley.

As a Scot myself, growing up in Ayrshire, I had become aware that there was lots of common language there that completely bamboozled English friends. But I hadn’t realised there was such a variation of vocabulary within Scotland itself. After all it is a very small nation which has two distinct languages – English and Gaelic. And while I had occasionally found some accents a bit difficult to get, I had never really had any trouble with understanding vocabulary.

Later in life when I got involved in the business of translation I began to see just how much these regional variations could matter. Spanish is spoken is Spain itself but also throughout a large part of South America. But that doesn’t mean that what makes sense in Madrid will be equally understood in Buenos Aires. Likewise with Portuguese. A Brazilian friend, who always thought he spoke perfect Portuguese, found himself struggling to be understood on holiday in the Algarve.

But I digress. Back to my predicament when meeting my landlady in the north east of Scotland. It turns out – as I came to realise during my stay there – that what I should have replied is:

“Nae sae bad quinie, fit like yasel?”

Or in plain English she asked me “How are you sir” and I should have replied “Not bad, how are you madam?”

Mark International Translation Day with our free card

In what way are language celebration days like buses? You wait for ages and then two come along at once! After last week’s European Day of Languages, this Tuesday marks International Translation Day.

The translation day was established in 1991 by the Fédération Internationale des Traducteurs (International Federation of Translators). The date of 30 September was chosen as it is the feast day of St. Jerome (347-420 AD), patron saint of translators, interpreters and librarians. The day celebrates and promotes translation as an essential activity in contemporary society – but one which too often remains invisible and ignored.

Each year a particular theme, highlighting a different area of translation, is adopted – with this year’s being “Terminology: Words Matter”. As the Federation put it, “the specific need is for words that matter, words that describe a previously identified concept and that contribute to the clarity and effectiveness of communication in a given field of expertise, environment or community.”

As a small celebration of this year’s International Translation Day, here is a greeting card for you. Feel free to also pass it on to your friends, clients or colleagues:

Celebrating Languages across Europe on Friday

This Friday, 26 September, is European Day of Languages when people across the European Union are meant to get together to celebrate language and cultural diversity. The day is sponsored by the Council of Europe and in their words is designed to be:

• A Europe-wide celebration of all the world’s languages
• A day to kick-start language learning
• A chance to raise awareness about the value of language skills

The Day was first celebrated in 2001 and has grown every year since. And the recent expansion of the EU has seen languages such as Latvian, Lithuanian and Romanian added to the languages being celebrated.

And it is not only European languages. In my house what the day has meant is that my daughter, who normally has to wear a uniform to school, is going in dressed in a Punjabi national costume that her aunt brought her from a trip to India. And other girls will be wearing national costumes from across the globe celebrating the multi-cultural, multi-lingual nature of the school and London as a whole.

To help everyone celebrate European Day of Languages, here is a PDF guide to saying “hello” in all the EU’s native languages and some more besides.

Should Italian use English words?

No visitor to Italy can miss the stream of adverts using English phrases, or the now ubiquitous “il weekend”. Today, the BBC news site has a report on a study in Italy about the infiltration of English into Italian.

The study by the respected Dante Alighieri Society [website in Italian] shows that many feel it has gone too far. In fact, the authors call on Italians to reject what they dub “Anglitalianco”. How successful they will be remains to be seen, when even those stalwart defenders of their language, the French, have come to accept borrow words such as “le shopping”.

But the question that occurs to me is: how far should we “defend” a language? Language is a living thing, it grows and borrows quite naturally. English itself is littered with words borrowed from other languages and continues to adopt them. So is insisting on “fine settimana” instead of weekend resisting linguistic imperialism or being a stick in the mud? I don’t know the answer, but as so often with language, it’s a fascinating debate.

Strategy for surviving recession?

It seems like every day there are new headlines of doom, gloom and forthcoming recession. Whilst the American recession has perhaps had less of an impact on the global economy than it would have done in the past, the overwhelming evidence of global recession casts a grey cloud over small businesses.

Earlier this month, an OECD report suggested that Britain’s economy would fare worst amongst those of the G7 in the last two quarters of 2008. This gloomy message was reinforced yesterday when the European Commission also predicted that the UK would fall into recession in the second half of this year.

The web is flooded with “recession help” sites. It would seem that everyone wants to put in his or her piece on how to avoid economic doom, and I’m afraid I’m no exception! But here I want to consider one way of keeping company finances healthy that is often overlooked: translation into one or more foreign languages.

Although the downturn is global it’s by no means uniform – for a small outlay you can tap into an international market, effectively “recession proofing” your company. Even near-by in Europe, you can find more reasons for optimism. France and Italy, for example, look set to be spared recession, while Poland is considered to have one of the fastest growing economies at present, with an annual growth rate of 6.0%.

On top of that, the weak pound may have been painful during our summer holidays – but it makes UK goods and services attractive to global consumers.

It seems almost paradoxical to expand in order to avoid recession, but business strategist Richard Denny disagrees: “When the going gets tough, business owners should step up their sales and marketing activity rather than cut back”. And what better way to do this than to break into a market less burdened with downturn?

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.

Little Italy alive and well in Clerkenwell

One of the great things about being based in Clerkenwell is its character. This area, just north of the City of London, is a maze of back streets and alleyways. In fact, Clerkenwell is the backdrop for Fagin’s gang of pickpockets in the book Oliver Twist as Charles Dickens knew the area well.

A decade or two after the publication of Oliver Twist, Clerkenwell became a centre of London’s Italian population, acquiring the nickname “Little Italy” somewhere along the line. This community has now largely dispersed, although I’m glad to say that a good number of Italian restaurants and the odd deli survive.

Another remnant is St Peter’s Italian Church which stands at the centre of what was Little Italy, just a few streets away from our office.

Hundreds of people still flock every year for an annual parade which has been held since the late nineteenth century to honour Our Lady of Mount Carmel. It is supposed to be the first outdoor Roman Catholic event that had been allowed in London since the Reformation.

What is without doubt is that this procession is spectacular, bringing a small slice of Italian street-life to London every July. Banners and statues are carried down the street, mingling with floats decorated to illustrate biblical and other scenes.



(Pictures © Alan Denney. For more images of the parade and a fascinating chronicle of ordinary Londoners over the last few decades, see Alan’s Flickr).

Perhaps predictably, the streets are not only filled with religous icons but also with aromas from the outdoor kitchens and food stalls that also spring up. You can get a metaphorical taste of the day from the pictures at the Italian Church website.

It’s easy to forget the influence of other cultures and nationalities on our city, and how many hidden gems such as this parade they contribute. I feel we’re lucky to live in a city that celebrates different cultures. London has been described as “the multicultural centre of Europe”, with over 7 million inhabitants speaking 300 distinct languages. We are renowned for our multiculturalism, and that is something we should be proud of.

Is the universal language of football enough?

The lead up to the Beijing Olympics over the past few weeks has meant that the start of the football season was quiet… well, relatively quiet. Being a Charlton fan, I tend to experience a combination of hope and fear as this time of year comes around. Our win against Swansea last week was great, despite the rain. Without dwelling on the Carling Cup, I just hope we can prove the doomsayers wrong and keep up our momentum in the league for the rest of the season. Come on you Reds!!
As Charlton now ply their trade in the Championship for a second season, us fans have had to make several mental adjustments. One of the things our relegation makes you realise is just how international the Premiership has become. The market for professional footballers must be one of the best-known examples of globalisation.
Over the past few decades there’s been a huge increase in foreign managers and foreign players (usually defined as those from outside of the UK and Ireland). Back in 1992, the first weekend of the Premiership saw just 11 foreign players starting on the field. Only 3 teams fielded more than one – Arsenal, Man Utd and Leeds (times really have changed!).
This increase has meant new challenges face both players and managers. Language barriers can be difficult to overcome. When Ranieri gave his first interview in English as the new manger of Chelsea in 2001, he admitted that being unable to speak the language had made a tough job “even tougher”.
There have certainly been some success stories. Since his appointment as manager in 1996, Arsene Wenger has led Arsenal to victories in both the Premiership and the FA cup, while coming painfully close in the Champions League. Likewise, Juande Ramos came to Spurs last season with supposedly only a basic grasp of English and yet pulled them up the table – pausing only to defeat Chelsea to seize the Carling Cup. The SPL hasn’t been immune either, even outside of the “big two”, with the likes of Finnish manager Paatelainen doing a workmanlike job at Hibs.
As a new season – with all its highs and lows – begins, the quality brought to UK football by this internationalisation is definitely enjoyable. The debate will no doubt continue to rage over whether it is a good thing, although few would argue we should follow the example of Malaysia’s total ban. The introduction of foreign players and mangers can certainly have a positive impact on a club, but even with the universal language of football, good communication is still necessary between nationalities both on and off the pitch.

Spanish Summer

Let’s face it – this summer of sport belongs to the Spanish. Nadal at Wimbledon, Euro 2008, Sastre in the Tour de France… it’s been a great season for the country of Spain. But this is a country divided by different cultures, foods, even languages. As Independent journalist James Lawton notes, Spain is best described as not a country but a “cohesive nation”.

Take, for example, Catalonia. Laws enforced after the fall of the Franco regime (which itself followed a bloody and divisive civil war) require that Spanish language be taught in state schools for 3 hours a week maximum – the same as English and other foreign languages. More than nine out of 10 people in the region can now speak Catalonian.

This wide variation from region to region in Spain is particularly important to bear in mind with Spanish translation, in terms of both language and culture. For example, tapas (small dishes of food including chorizo and Serrano ham) and Cava (local champagne) are two things that come to mind when you think of Spain, along with the less palatable bull-fighting. Yet of these ‘Spanish’ delicacies, Cava is only produced in Catalonia, and tapas is a Basque tradition.

When it comes to business translation, one rule is key: “Speak your readers’ language”. That is a language that changes from person to person, region to region – not just country to country. Nowhere in the world is this more apparent than in the “cohesive nation” of Espaňa (and that’s before you even consider the variants found within Latin American countries). However, for now, division within the country lies largely forgotten. As stated by Madrid-based political analyst David Mathieson in The Guardian: “Football has united Spain”.