Thursday, 23 April 2015

Translation and cultural differences

Saturday's congress of translators gave me the chance to ponder some more on the linguistic and cultural space between Britain and Poland.

The 20th Century saw the English language evolve in the direction of clarity. Winston Churchill and George Orwell both understood the power of clarity in communication. If you want people to listen to you, and act upon what you say, use short words and short sentences, avoid pomposity and get to the point. The Plain English Campaign, launched in 1979, accelerated this direction. The Campaign wages war against gobbledegook and jargon wherever it may appear - in official letters, in the small print of insurance documents, in legal opinions, in press releases, in banks' advertising materials.

The results are there for all to see. Look at the sheer brilliance of the UK government's website, Gov.uk. What's the current threshold for paying VAT in the UK? Three clicks from the homepage and you know. Marvel at the clarity of the information: "You must register for VAT with HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) if your business’ VAT taxable turnover is more than £82,000." Crystal clear! [I challenge you to find out what the VAT threshold is in Poland from the Ministry of Finance's website. How many clicks away from the homepage?]

It was not always thus; compare today's English with the language as used in Victorian times. Here's Charles Dickens, in full flow; from Dombey and Son (1848): "The Major, standing in the shade of his own apartment, could make out that an air of greater smartness had recently come over Miss Tox's house; that a new cage with gilded wires had been provided for the ancient little canary bird; that divers ornaments, cut out of coloured card-boards and paper, seemed to decorate the chimney-piece and tables; that a plant or two had suddenly sprung up in the windows; that Miss Tox occasionally practised on the harpsichord, whose garland of sweet peas was always displayed ostentatiously, crowned with the Copenhagen and Bird Waltzes in a Music Book of Miss Tox's own copying." This is a single sentence, composed of 104 words. Churchill and Orwell's legacy to the ages is that English literature will never revert to Dickensian logorrhea.

I reach for Moni's copy of Zadie Smith's White Teeth (2000). Crisp prose. No waffle. Average sentence length around 24 words, two lines of 11/13pt Monotype Dante.

The reader of English today - for whatever purpose, business or pleasure, expects that the author will make the effort to make themselves understood. It is no longer the duty of the reader to try to unscramble the author's intent. Writing waffle has become unacceptable.

So - when translating from Polish (where clear writing has not been so well established) to English (where it is an imperative), how much onus is on the translator to improve the author's original clarity in the source language?

If the intended recipient is someone from Britain, accustomed to clear sentence structure based around a strong verb, will a direct translation of a Polish sentence into English have the intended effect on the reader? Call to action?

From the website of one of Poland's 14 Special Economic Zones... "Following the submission of the Letter of Intent by the Investor as well as its verification, the Zone Manager publishes an invitation to tender (if the tenderer applies in total for a Permit and the acquisition of rights to the real estate or other assets which are located in the Zone) or an invitation to negotiations (if the tenderer applies solely for the Permit, having the legal title to the real estate or other assets located in the Zone, or holding a document which reliably proves the possibility of them obtaining such a title) in the daily international press, on the Zone's website and, possibly, in the foreign press." OK. 109 words. Dickensian. [By the way, where's the principal verb in this sentence?] Yet this is a faithful and accurate translation of what's on the Polish pages of this SEZ's website. Ale czy o to chodzi?

The target group of the above text, English-speaking managers of potential investors considering this SEZ, will subconsciously see this as proof that procedures for entering the Zone are onerous, formalistic and overly bureaucratic, and therefore probably a waste of time.

My point is this. When translating from Polish into English, the translator - and the author - and the author's ultimate boss - must understand that there are cultural barriers that need to be bridged. In Britain it is not the sign of intelligence and education to go waffling on at ten to the dozen. Rather the reverse. Waffle is used by intellectually insecure people to hide their inability to think clearly.

And yet when I explained all this in Lublin on Saturday, I was met with some scepticism. "In Poland," one legal translator told me, with an entirely straight face, "clients expect their lawyers to write pages and pages of waffle. It's what they pay them to do."

Clearly then, it is high time for a Plain Polish Campaign. Educating both the writer and the reader as to the benefits of clear written and oral communication is essential. Language can be a source of competitive advantage for those countries that value clarity.

This time two years ago:
The demand for Park + Ride keeps growing

This time three years ago:
Cycle-friendly London

This time four years ago:
The end of the Azure Week

8 comments:

AndrzejK said...

If I need to get staff to write anything to an English speaking client I insist that the document is drafted in English and (if required) translated back to Polish. You end up with something which is much clearer.

On the matter of semantics the Polish accounting term "rozliczenie" has various meanings where for each English has a seperate and very clear work. So this could be:account for; reoncile; make a (tax) return, allocate, agree, reconcile and that is not the end of the list. No wonder that to understand International standards (IFRS) you need to go to the English language original!a

Anonymous said...

The verb is "publishes"

Michael Dembinski said...

"Rozliczenie" is a classic. Language-logic guru Jacek Koba can do a whole seminar about this one word in the Polish-English linguistic space!

My bugbear is "sustainability" translated as zrównoważony. Yesterday, a professor at SGGW told our food-sciences conference about a survey of how Polish consumers understand the concept of "sustainable diet" (ie one that doesn't wreck the environment in the long term). "Yes, of course we know!" they (nearly) all said, a "sustainable diet" is one that balances carbs, protein and vitamins.

No, zrównoważony does NOT mean "sustainable"!

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Anonymous

YES! Well done! I read this dreadful paragraph out at a conference of Special Economic Zones today in Warsaw... a lot of embarrassed laughter in the room!

student SGH said...

Big thanks for the follow-up! Well done!

The starting point for these considerations is that the language is not just a jumble of words having specific meanings. The example of Special Economic Zone's leaflet shows the way how those words are put together to form a message does matter.

Oddly enough, what certainly lacks flow and naturality in English actually sounds familiar in Polish.

I will be now flogging the dead horse, but why not reiterating it - in Poland the more convoluted text you write, the more educated you appear. Writing waffle is a part of Polish mindset and if something is to be done to eradicate the edu-babble from the Polish official language, I put forward carrot and stick...

With translators the issue is more complicated. How a translator assigned a task of translating some waffle into English does their job depends on incentives. If they are paid for translating the sh*t word for word, why should they bother to improve anything if their superior or mandator would remonstrate them for straying from original. Mere awaraness of the problem among translators is insufficient! There are organisations and people employed by them who commission the service of translation and then verify translators' jobs. The problem is that "Following the submission of the Letter of Intent by the Investor as well as its verification, the Zone Manager publishes an invitation to tender (if the tenderer applies in total for a Permit and the acquisition of rights to the real estate or other assets which are located in the Zone) or an invitation to negotiations (if the tenderer applies solely for the Permit, having the legal title to the real estate or other assets located in the Zone, or holding a document which reliably proves the possibility of them obtaining such a title) in the daily international press, on the Zone's website and, possibly, in the foreign press." is exactly what clients expect. Klient nasz pan, taka sytuacja

Sigismundo said...

I'm sad to say Polish academia is little better. When I recently mentioned the Campaign for Plain English to a certain "Pan Doktor" from a noted Polish academic institution 20 years my junior, he simply couldn't believe it existed.

When reading Polish academic texts, which I do a lot in my everyday work, my emotions range from despair, to bewilderment, to furious anger, even for stuff published in 2015. It's one of the great cultural divides that I fear I will never cross.

As an aside: I simply couldn't imagine a Polish version of one of my all-time favourite programmes, Time Team.

Bpcc Trade said...

Very interesting topic. It's also a question of understanding of empathy with the reader/listener, and presentation of information to match that. This is one of my favourites from the Walbzych SEZ:

The Wałbrzych Special Economic Zone is established untill 31st of December 2026 and in total encompass space of about 2648 ha and is composed of 44 Subzones, of which 26 are situated within the Dolnośląskie Voivodship, i.e. Wałbrzych, Nowa Ruda, Kłodzko, Dzierżoniow, Żarow, Jelcz - Laskowice, Kudowa Zdrój, Świdnica, Wrocław, Oława, Strzelin, Strzegom, Brzeg Dolny, Bolesławiec, Wiązów, Wołów, Ząbkowice Śląskie, Syców, Świebodzice, Bystrzyca Kłodzka Twardogóra, Góra, Oleśnica, Bielawa and Kobierzyce, 9 areas are located in Opolskie Voivodship - i.e. Opole, Nysa, Namysłów, Praszka, Kluczbork Skarbimierz, Prudnik, Grodków and Otmuchów, 8 in Wielkopolskie Voivodship - i.e. Krotoszyn, Śrem, Leszno, Września, Kościan, Jarocinin, Kalisz and Rawicz, and one in Lubuskie Voivodship - i.e. Szprotawa.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ BPCC Trade:

Some typical, frequently encountered errors and style!

"established untill"; "about 2648 ha"; errors in numeration and punctuation, and above all - information that's far too detailed for this context. This should be 'big picture' - elevator pitch.