31 October 2011

Help journalists to help you

Following my 6 October blog under the heading 'A page for your foreign journos', here's another idea for such a page.

If anyone can point me to a site that has thought of foreign journos to the point of helping them with relevant journalistic devices in key target languages, beginning with -- now what are these things called? -- those concise and hopefully at least gently favourable capsules that remind readers what a company does.

Here, for instance, are examples of how the Financial Times refers to Jane’s:
- IHS Jane’s, the military publishing group [FT January 31, 2011]
- IHS Jane’s, an intelligence consultancy [FT January 24, 2011]
- Jane’s Information Group, publisher of the renowned Jane’s Defence Weekly [FT Alphaville June 13, 2007]
- Jane’s, the defence consultancy [FT June 11, 2010]
- Jane’s, the defence analyst, [FT July 14, 2010].

Following Seth

To date, I've not been very successful in attracting feedback, comments or followers. Today, I consulted a guru. More specifically, I consulted Seth Godin's blog headed How to get traffic for your blog.

I'm following some of his 56 recommendations, but probably not enough. One that I am following and that struck me forcefully is tip 54: Write about obscure stuff that appeals to an obsessed minority.

Time will tell.

Product naming in Europe, take #2

In December 2000, French defence electronics contractor Thomson-CSF, changed its name to Thales, leaving a large proportion of its English-language customers, and even many employees, with no idea how to pronounce the word.

To this day, thousands hesitate between /talɛs/, if they have heard of Thales of Miletus, /ˈθeɪliːz/, and other variants. Closer to home, a large proportion of French mother-tongue journalists write ‘Thalès’ to match head office’s pronuncation, but not its orthography or offical tradename. Note, the OHIM site only lists the all-caps form. OHIM eSearch Plus beta link.
To listen to a podcast about Thales /ˈθeɪliːz/ of Miletus (and hear the word pronounced several times) go to History of Philosophy.
The fact that this and other French companies have names, whether words or acronyms, ending in -s is also a handicap when working in English. Flash agencies that propose company and product names should learn that English speakers spontaneously avoid names ending in -s because they are problematic when it comes to pronouncing and writing the possessive form. Doesn't sound like a big deal at first glance, but there are situations when it seriously constrains the copywriter's freedom.

Scorpène is a wonderful name for a submarine, even if you don’t know that it’s one of the many common French names for the red lionfish, a venomous coral reef fish in the family Scorpænidæ, order Scorpæniformes. Fishbase link to Pterois volitans.
And in English, I'd suggest that it might have been a better idea to retain Scorpène rather than Scorpene.
It seems a pity that the only form of the registered tradename is SCORPENE (all caps, no accent), a serious constraint for graphic artists, marketing copywriters and translators. OHIM eSearch Plus beta link.

Product naming in Europe, a scenario

R&D (aka RTD) develops a concept. Engineering builds and tests the prototypes. Management give the project the green light. Marketing dreams up a product name, typically with a heavy cultural and linguistic bias determined by where the team is based and the nationalities of the key members. Marketing asks Legal Affairs to register the tradenames.

Marketing fails to think through how the product name will work in the languages of key markets. Legal Affairs registers tradenames in ‘all caps’ format without accents, partly out of habit, partly as a result of insufficient dialogue with Marketing. No one thinks to ask sales staff in target markets or a language consultant what they think, possibly because this higher duty is thought to be above anyone closer to the company’s customers or more familiar with their languages and cultures.

Results. In some countries or languages, a name may be funny, offensive, unfortunate or a missed opportunity.

Example: English-language readers often react very positively to French accents; a point which is often lost on the French themselves since they don’t actually see the accents the way others do. Internationally, ‘France Télécom’ presents itself as ‘France Telecom’, whereas many outside France would have found the original form both stronger and more distinctive.

30 October 2011

The joyful side of translation

Two quotes from The joyful side of translation, novelist Adam Thirlwell's review of David Bellos's "Is that a fish in your ear?" (subtitled, Translation and the meaning of everything):
But a translation ... isn’t trying to be the same as the original, but to be like it. Which is why the usual conceptual duo of translation — fidelity, and the literal — is too clumsy.
Translation, ... rather than providing a substitute, instead “provides for some community an acceptable match for an utterance made in a foreign tongue.” What makes a match acceptable will vary according to that community’s idea of what aspects of an utterance need to be matched by its translation.

28 October 2011

EASIS, history, new edition and more

The infamous and oft mentioned 'English as She Is Spoke' (EASIS to friends) has "sputtered incoherently in the background of our culture for nearly a century and a half now, and the extent of its damage to Anglo-American/Portuguese-Brazilian relations can only be estimated. Thanks to Paul Collins and McSweeney's Books, it has returned after a hiatus of some 30 years, beautifully bound to resemble a volume from a school library, a new cover for an old trap."


25 October 2011

Waffle and guff, take #2

More thoughts on waffle and guff as discussed by Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway on 23 October in Management guff lands in China.
Although none of the claims discussed here can be considered to have been formally demonstrated by exhaustive research, all are perfectly in line with my own observations over the past three decades.

Lucy points out that waffle and guff:
  • are widespread and probably increasingly so
  • seldom appear to have any negative impact on the performance or sales of large corporations (no matter how disappointing that observation may be to language-sensitive technical communicators and their readers)
  • are sometimes observed to have a significant negative impact on smaller companies that have yet to make a name for themselves.
I would add, as I pointed out below under 'Defence is different', that waffle, guff and other forms of poor writing and translation have little or no impact on sales in defence and other areas with high price tags per item.

All of which leaves language-sensitive technical communicators and translators with just one unique selling proposition when talking to large corporations, namely that front-line documents  in all working languages should be a source of corporate pride and the quality of the writing and any translations commensurate with the proclaimed quality of the company's own products and services.

24 October 2011

Lucy hits out at Publicis

Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway is renowned for her insightful criticism of waffle, fluff, guff and other forms of bullshit. Under the heading Management guff lands in China, she writes:
  “The release went on meaninglessly, moronically: 'Our dream is to grow our clients’ business by transforming human behaviour through uplifting, meaningful human experiences.'”
She adds:
  “ You could say that it doesn’t matter. Indeed, one of the most enduring mysteries in business is that there appears to be no link between talking nonsense and performing poorly.
No day at work ever passes without me being sent something from a perfectly successful company that has adopted management talk with no obvious ill effects.”

Apparently, the copy was produced by French masters of business communication (reread those last two words very slowly) Publicis.

Some quick conclusions.
Though common, this largely meaningless fluff and guff has amazingly little impact on sales or results despite the contrary hopes of journalists, technical communicators and translators.
This type of text is more challenging to translate than any other commonly encountered in the business world precisely because it almost sounds, after a quick scan, as though it is saying something, but, on further investigation, turns out to be nothing more than fluff, guff and buzz words.

17 October 2011

Translation by emulation, take #1

‘Translation by emulation’ is an approach to translation/adaptation or transcreation. As a French-to-English translator specialising in technical journalism, I aim to produce English versions of my customers’ documents that read as though they had been drafted directly by a mother-tongue technical journalist, which is to says someone combining professional mother-tongue writing skills, subject knowledge and experience in writing for the same target audience. In Europe, the standard in naval defence is set by publications like Jane’s Navy International and Jane’s Naval Forces News. I have studied both for many years and always striven to emulate their style, rhythm and other characteristics, save for occasional concessions to accommodate the fact that many of my readers (i.e. my customers’ customers) read English as a second language.
Writing for a highly specialised readership is quite different from writing for a much broader general audience. To explain how and why is a challenging task. Let me take the following points one at a time:
1) Change viewpoint. One of the great challenges of technical communication is to write not from one's own or the company's viewpoint, but from the customer's viewpoint. Good product promotion begins not with claims concerning challenges overcome by engineers but with information presented from the customer's viewpoint on how the product meets customer need. Sounds easy, doesn't it? In practice it is very challenging and takes long practice.
Company engineers who have not been trained in this area find it very difficult to forget that they are engineers and to write from the customer's viewpoint. Result? Much technical journalism produced by in-house teams is company focused instead of customer focused.
Without a clear mandate from the client, a translator cannot re-write a document in the target language and change the viewpoint entirely. But (s)he can subtly (or not-so-subtly) reduce the focus on the company or its product engineering and increase that on customer's needs.  
2) Change viewpoint (claims). Similarly, a French journalist can easily make a bold claim that will ring true (or at least not false) for his French-language readers because, like the writer, they will subconsciously be thinking of the French national context more than the international context. Contrast this with the fact that most readers of the English version will subconsciously be thinking of the international context in which the same claim may be anything from unproven or unlikely to downright misleading. The courageous transcreator will modify the claim accordingly to ensure that it doesn't ruffle the reader's feathers or, worse, tarnish instead or burnishing the (translation) customer's image.
3) Change viewpoint (adjectives). When a French naval engineer writes about a ship or other naval topic, (s)he's probably thinking subconsciously about the French Navy. Contrast this with the fact that most readers of the English version will subconsciously be thinking of the large English-language fleets or their own navy. This means that even a very simple adjective like 'big' needs serious thought since what is 'big' relative to the French Navy, is not necessarily so for, say, the US Navy.
4) Personal pronouns: Research confirms that annual reports and similar documents written directly in authentic English contain more first person pronouns (I, my, our) than translations of similar texts from French. ‘Translation by emulation’ thus demands that many sentences be recast with first person pronouns rather than third person pronouns. This research (by Rosie Wells recently and by Vinay & Darbelnet many years before) is backed up by the recommendations of the SEC Plain English Handbook among others.
5) Acronyms: Countless online style guides advise journalists to avoid acronyms and abbreviations wherever possible. I do not believe that this rule should be applied too rigorously to technical journalism, particularly for military readerships. Military personnel live and breathe acronyms to the point where they are often more familiar with an acronym than its long form. The documents that they read use so many acronyms that the text acquires a rhythm of its own that cannot be maintained if one resorts too often to long forms.

More in due course on headings, captions, the USN style guide, transforming unqualified and unconditional claims into conditional claims etc.

TJ and term variability

Technical journalism is often characterised by an odd mix of rigorous terminology and extreme term variability. Although difficult to desribe and even more difficult to quantify, the phenomenon is readily illustrated by example. Take naval defence. English-language naval defence journalists consistently refer to nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines using precisely that term or its short form SSBN. Similarly, their French counterparts consistently use sous-marin nucléaire lanceur d'engins or the short form SNLE. Contrast this with the following observations:
  • French journalists and engineers writing about combat management systems use: système d'exploitation navale des informations tactiques ; système de traitement de l'information ; système de combat ; système de direction de combat ; centre nerveux; combat management system ; CMS ; cerveau informatique, among others.
  • Between 2000 and 2010, Jane’s naval publications used over 20 designations referring to the BPC programme of French naval shipbuilder DCNS, including: … FS Mistral, the amphibious assault, command and power projection ship (BPC) … [JNI, 07/10/2004]; … Tonnerre, the second of two Batiments [sic] de Projection et de Commandement (BPC) multipurpose amphibious ships … [JNI, 22/03/2007]; and … Mistral-class amphibious assault vessels …[JNI, 04/03/2010].  

11 October 2011

Defence is different

In most industries, translators and technical communicators can claim that clear, forceful documents contribute directly or indirectly to sales and/or customer satisfaction.
See, for instance, Paper still sets the agenda for newsreaders.

Defence is, however, different, at least as regards I call 'front-line' documentation.

Because defence export contracts are driven by politics, price and performance these arguments don't carry the same weight. And while it is true that some international arms contracts have gone seriously wrong at least partly as a result of poor technical writing or translation of post-sales documentation, such considerations are far from foremost in a procurement agency's thinking when negotiating a new contract.

So where does this leave defence industry translators and technical communicators?

I think it boils down to maintaining face. Can a defence contractor seeking contracts worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars afford to look cheap and shoddy by producing poor copy and poorer translations?

Indeed, I wonder if any procurement agencies have ever thought about analysing bidders' copy and translations to glean insights into their motivations, cultural sensitivities and attitudes. It seems to me that this could be an inexpensive way of at least formulating some penetrating questions to raise at the negotiating table.

Waffle and fluff make translation tough

(This blog picks up where 'Technical, but not tough_#1' left off.)

Texts for translation can be classified in many ways. This translator’s voice of experience says that it’s not about subject matter but about information content and clarity. If a text actually says something and says it clearly, then it can be translated; if it’s ‘waffle’, then filling the space with a target-language version that sounds, at first glance, as though it is saying something, but on closer analysis turns out to say little or nothing -- in other words that achieves as much but no more than the original -- can be a huge challenge.
Experience also suggests that ‘waffle’ or ‘fluff’ is more prevalent in some areas and others. Management, human resources, graphics (including logos and graphic standards) are prime examples.

My thoughts are supported by Financial Times columnist  Lucy Kellaway.
On 24 October 2010, Lucy wrote under the heading Glass ceiling in management drivel is broken:
“The point of the conference is to empower, educate and inspire women to be ‘Architects of Change®’. But it’s not quite clear to me why anyone would want to be such a thing. An architect is someone who designs a building and then invariably falls out with the builders who build it and the clients who pay for it. And if I wanted to be an architect, the last thing I’d want to architect (the noun now perfectly acceptable as a verb in management circles) would be change, in general. Good change is good, bad change is bad, and sometimes the status quo is the best of all.”
“.... an orgy of ‘reaching out’ and ‘delivering value’ and ‘going forward’ ...”

On 17 October 2010 under the heading Listening to customers can be bad business, Lucy wrote:
“ ‘We think our new brand expression visually distinguishes PwC in the same way that the quality and expertise of our people differentiates the experience of working with PwC,’ said the firm’s chairman. Which is, of course, absolute, total tosh. Three little letters and some squares cannot say anything about quality or expertise at all.”
“But then logos are a fluffy subject; I have never heard anyone say anything that wasn’t daft about the thinking behind any change. This is because there never is any thinking, save the idea that it’s time to do something different.”

08 October 2011

An apostrophe

iamnotkathryn Twitter
Kathryn Williams, on punctuation:
"An apostrophe is the difference between a business that knows its shit and a business that knows it's shit."

Definitely one of the best visual puns I've ever seen.
Not to mention what it says about the importance of good punctuation.

Who writes what for the European defence industries?

Big industries. Big question. The subject probably deserves an extensive survey. For the moment, all I can offer is a few observations.
Please feel free to comment or correct.

Observation #1: European defence contractors based in the UK work only in English and most others in their national language plus English. Some work in three or four languages, the selection always including English.

Observation #2: Many higher-level documents are, as far as I can tell, drafted by engineers and other categories who do not see themselves primarily as technical communicators. Some higher-level documents are, I presume, drafted by people  who do see themselves primarily as technical communicators.

Observation #3:   Technical documents accompanying products are, as far as I can tell, generally produced by specialised tech doc contractors employing technical writers and translators who, again, as far as I can judge, are seldom members of organisations representing their profession.

Observation #4: A great deal of 'front-line' documentation  is, as far as I can tell, drafted by engineers and other categories who do not see themselves primarily as technical communicators.
Some 'front-line' documentation is produced by corporate and technical journalists, whether employees, freelancers or subcontractors.

What do I mean by the term 'front-line' documentation?  This category includes websites, documents available to customers, prospective customers and other interested persons via websites. Also hardcopy documents distributed at trade shows and the like. Press releases, presskits, brochures, product datasheets, company magazines and in-house publications are all examples, along with technical journalism article for trade publications.
Virtually all 'front-line' documentation drafted in a language other than English is translated or adapted into English.

What do I mean by 'higher-level' documents? This category includes 'front-line' documentation, but is broader as it also includes various types of in-house and published documents. I'm sorry if that's not very clear. The best I can do for the moment is to list some examples: speeches, policy statements, marketing discussion documents, in-house language resource documents (éléments de language), executive summaries of bids and documents serving as input for all of the above.
Many 'higher-level' documents   drafted in a language other than English are translated or adapted into English.

Why 'technical journalism'?

Above I define 'front-line' documentation as including websites, documents available to customers, prospective customers and other interested persons via websites. Also hardcopy documents distributed at trade shows and the like. Press releases, presskits, brochures, product datasheets, company magazines and in-house publications are all examples, along with technical journalism article for trade publications.

I further define 'technical journalism' as the work that goes into -- or should go into  -- producing such documents.

The translation of technical journalism falls into two categories:
o  'For information' translation of technical journalism articles about a company or its products. In this case the translation customer simply wants to know what a foreign-language article says about the company or its products, or possible a competitors products or some related topic. For the translator this is a straight-forward type of job.
o  'For publication' translation where the translation customer drafts an article promoting the company, its image or its products in its working language then requests translations into one or more target languages for use in the ways already described. At first glance this task sounds very similar to 'for information' translation, but is not. This challenging is the main reason for this blog's existence. Anyone interested should read on and wait for further postings.

06 October 2011

A page for your foreign journos

Most English-language print media have tags (for want of a better term) that they attach to company names to ensure that readers are clear on which company the journalist is referring to. For example, today's Financial Times mentions "TNT Express, the Dutch express delivery company,".

Has anyone out there noticed any alert media officers that have realised the potential of supplying tags describing their organisation in favourable terms in the languages of the company's target markets?

The same applies for basic explanations of an entity's name and boilerplate descriptions of what it does.

I suggest that organisations interested in the idea add a page under the Media (or similar) heading of their company site to deliver these items in their target languages. This would ensure that the company is tagged more consistently and more accurately while providing a service to foreign-language journalists.

Switching to Mac, take #2

I've now worked on my MacBook Pro for at least a couple of hours a day for over three months. I'm happy with the hardware and amazed...