05 October 2015

So you think you know what "I understand the meaning" means do you?

Lucy Kellaway's Hands up if you can say what your company’s values are — subtitled Seventeen of Britain’s 100 best companies get along fine without listing corporate traits — is, IMHO, a brilliant example of what a brutally honest review of the odd custom of defining and promoting corporate values. Along the way — and probably of even greater interest to translators and other wordsmiths — is the way Lucy reveals that, at least where abstract words for corporate values and traits are concerned, it is very easy to feel that you understand what the words mean without actually understanding very much at all.

If you have the time and access to the FT, please read the whole article. If you don't, here a long excerpt of the main points of interest to wordsmiths (her links; my bold):
... all corporate values are much of a muchness. Maitland, the financial PR company, has just finished an audit of the values of the FTSE 100, and found that three words — integrity, respect and innovation — crop up over and over again.
What a splendid trio they sound. Alas, all are duds. Integrity is particularly feeble. It makes no sense to assert integrity as a value, as no one would ever dream of asserting the reverse. Respect sounds good, but is meaningless unless it is made clear (as it never is) who is meant to be respected. Some people deserve respect; others do not. And innovation makes its way on to the list more as a wish from frumpy companies to be seen as a little groovier.
Part of the trouble with values is that it isn’t clear what they are supposed to be doing. You could say they are there to tell the outside world how the company behaves (or would like to behave) and how that is different from other companies. This is a fine aim, but it doesn’t work for three reasons.
First, self-describing is always dodgy. If someone goes out of their way to tell me they are honest or creative, I immediately conclude the reverse. Second, far from being a point of difference, values make every company look the same, as there is only a finite list of desirable corporate traits. And third, public professions are a hostage to fortune. Volkswagen must be ruing the day it made “sustainability” a core value.
So how should the thinking translator respond when requested to translate a set of dud corporate values and their often pompous descriptions? Well, if you're on really good terms with someone high up in corporate communications you might try to open a conversation and refer your contact to Lucy's piece. This may even be mandatory if a value word used by the client is particularly difficult to translate or does not carry comparable connotations.

Otherwise, all you can do is translate the values and descriptions as best you can while bearing two points in mind. If translating into English, note first that the value words may gain weight if they are a degree or two less abstract and pompous; and second that the descriptions will definitely benefit from the same treatment.

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