19 December 2013


Some thoughts on the term 'drone' and its use in general and technical journalism.

On 18 December, the Financial Times defined 'drone' as its word of the day, writing:
Drones are unmanned aircraft, of any size or shape, used for both civilian and military purposes. There has been increasing discussion of the use of so-called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in a commercial setting. Although Amazon's founder Jeff Bezos has said he could see drone deliveries inside five years (see news below) others have been more cautious and think using UAVs for delivery would be better suited to remote parts of Africa rather than dense, built-up environments such as US cities.
The entry would have been more generic and more accurate had it read: Drones are unmanned vehicles, of any size or shape, used for civilian or military purposes. 'Vehicles', or similar, is preferable since the term is widely understood to cover both aerial and maritime vehicles. See here under 'nomenclature'.

On 17 December, the Guardian ran an article entitled 
with the 'kicker' reading:
General Atomics tells MPs the term drone is pejorative and the aircraft have a 'proven beneficial role in humanitarian crises'. (my bold)

Matthew Weaver's article begins:
The American company that supplies the Predator and Reaper drones used to assassinate insurgents in Afghanistan and elsewhere has complained to a committee of MPs about the image problem of such weapons.
General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, which also manufactures the Avenger and Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft, says the word drone has "pejorative connotations".
This is an interesting development. In translating technical journalism on this topic for a clearly identified military readership I have consistently preferred more specialised acronyms and terms for precisely this reason. I can't claim to have convinced my translation customers of the validity of my choices or to have succeeded in bringing the issue to the attention of the customer's marketing department, but I've persevered none the less.

This discussion pinpoints a striking terminological difference between general and technical journalism and the translation thereof. While 'drone' is clearly familiar to the general journalism reader, technical journalists and their translators need to consider a range of broader issues. In writing or translating articles intended to promote the client's products and corporate image it may be entirely appropriate to use a manufacturer's preferred terminology, in this case the less emotive term 'remotely piloted aircraft (RPA)'.

It is also interesting to note, given Matthew Weaver's audience, the highly technical final paragraph:
The MoD's 14-page submission avoids any reference to the word drone and urged experts in the field to follow its detailed guidance on the correct terminology for various remotely piloted aircraft. It also rejected the term "unmanned aerial vehicle" as confusing because human pilots operated them remotely and would continue to do so.
The said 'detailed guidance on the correct terminology' can be found here under 'nomenclature'.

One of the main aims of this blog is to demonstrate that the translation of technical journalism presents a wide range of special challenges.

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