Category : Translation


The secret behind successful copywriting…

My writing resolution for 2014: never use three words when one will do

In the first week or so of any New Year, TV and the written press bombard us lesser mortals with talk of New Year’s resolutions. If you haven’t yet come up with a resolution for your business or organisation, here’s a suggestion to make your marketing and social media campaigns more engaging. It’s very simple: be brief.

As an eager journalism student years ago, I have vivid memories of receiving my first assignment back from our lecturer – an articulate, erudite lady with an impeccable track record in lexical manipulation.

To my horror, I noted that more of my precious words seemed to have been deleted than actually remained on the page – and, judging by the reaction of my classmates, my experience was not unique. They, too, had suffered a savage and apparently unprovoked attack on their verbosity.

Our lecturer’s writing mantra, she explained, was to remove every word that was not doing a job.

When I reread the offensively red text she’d handed me, I realised that she hadn’t changed the meaning of my writing one whit: she had simply removed the parts she deemed “redundant”. And what was the result of her interventions? Precisely the same message was conveyed in around 30% fewer words…

This baptism of fire at the hands of an editor who wielded a red pen like a scalpel was a stark reminder that in copywriting, as in so many other aspects of life, it is quality – not quantity – that matters.

Take slogans. They’re an excellent example of writers making words work hard for a living – in just three words, companies such as Nike (“Just do it”), Coke (“Coke is it”) and Audi (“Vorsprung durch Technik”) promoted their brands memorably.

It probably took their marketing teams days (perhaps even weeks) to develop these short, yet highly successful, slogans – an apparent paradox which was neatly summed up by American writer Mark Twain. He is quoted as saying, “If you want me to give you a two-hour presentation, I am ready today. If you want only a five-minute speech, it will take me two weeks to prepare.”

As for how long it took to translate (or “localise”) the three aforementioned advertising slogans phrases into a host of other languages in such a way as to achieve a similar effect across both cultures and continents, well that’s another story entirely (and the subject of a blog later this year)!

Twain wasn’t the first writer, by a long way, to identify the difficulty of being concise with words. In Shakespeare’s renowned tragedy Hamlet, Polonius declares:

“Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.”

Even before that, Roman philosopher and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

These three men understood the importance of being succinct.  Having spent the first 20 years of my professional life being paid by the volume of words I translated, it’s perhaps ironic that I now regularly advocate brevity. But I do.

Cartoon depicting two old gentlemen surveying empty booksheves, that contain only a few electronic reading devices.

Why Translators had Bigger Biceps 30 Years Ago…

How the digital age has revolutionised translation research

 Cartoon of two gentlemen observing an almost empty bookcase, in which there are only three electronic reading devices.

A recent “big” birthday set me thinking about how much the translation industry has changed in the almost three decades since I emerged one sunny July afternoon from the Assembly Halls in Edinburgh, clutching a document (encased in a red cardboard tube) which proclaimed me to be a trained and tested translator.

I was fortunate to secure my first professional post almost immediately – as a junior translator for an endearingly eccentric translation company based in a rambling mansion in deepest Sussex. The in-house translation team was comprised of a cosmopolitan bunch of linguists: a Scottish girl (Yours Truly), two chivalrous Englishmen, a spirited Spanish lady, an elegant Italian lady, a gentle German Mädchen and a trio of flamboyant French linguists.

As a newbie language professional 30 years ago, I quickly discovered that the company’s in-house “library” was the centre of my new universe. Then, as now, research was critical to the production of terminologically correct translation. Fortunately, the company provided us with an in-house library for research purposes – an utterly heavenly room (for a bibliophile) lined with groaning bookshelves.

Being called upon to translate texts on a wide variety of weird and wonderful topics, I would make frequent trips to that fact-filled repository – often lugging half a dozen weighty tomes back to my work station, where I would pore over them in pursuit of particularly obscure terms.

There was no concept of “online” research in those distant, yet not-really-so-distant, days. The occasional mention of a mysterious electronic communication system called “Telecom Gold” seemed to excite the techy gurus in the office, but we translators paid little attention to it. We were far too busy buried in our dictionaries and encyclopaedias or queuing up beside the chuntering telex machine either to pick up the telegrams awaiting our translationary expertise or to send the fruits of our linguistic labours off to waiting clients all round the world.

When I became a freelance translator several years later, I rapidly realised just how much I had relied on that munificently stocked multilingual library for my research. Specialist dictionaries were expensive – especially for young professionals starting out on their own – so initially freelancers had to restrict themselves to purchasing a few select dictionaries covering the subjects that they handled most often. This meant that we each tended to have our own “pet” dictionaries, the “breeds” of which varied depending on our individual areas of expertise.

Ever the hoarder, I am still in possession of my first three specialist dictionaries, even though they are now decades out of date (not a problem that afflicts today’s easily updated online dictionaries).

The three books in question are like old friends: the intimidatingly titled yet fabulously informative Ernst Wörterbuch der industriellen Technik; its French alter ego, the Ernst Dictionnaire de la Technique Industrielle (in those days I translated a lot of technical materials about heavy industrial gas turbines, zip manufacturing and plastic packaging); and the appropriately green six-language Haensch-Haberkamp agricultural dictionary, which was my pride and joy.

It was also an essential tool, given that I was doing a lot of work for the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (now DEFRA), so I needed to know my bovine somatotropins from my bovine spongiform encephalopathy – as you do…

When I think now about how long it used to take me to track down fiendishly tricky technical terms that defied even the most erudite of dictionaries and compare that often frustrating and protracted experience with the push-button ease of modern-day online research, it’s tempting to wish that I’d been born 30 years later. I still remember perching heavy dictionaries on my “bump” while I was pregnant and worrying slightly that the bambino would be born with a dictionary-shaped dent in his or her head!

So modern-day research methods definitely have their benefits – such as obviating the need for Popeye-esque biceps to cart colossal compendiums to and from one’s desk. However, it’s important to bear in mind that the ready and rapid supply of online information does – in spite of its undeniable advantages and attractions – present a few problems of its own.

Of these, undoubtedly the most significant is the reliability of information sources. Faced with myriad offerings (often a choice of a dozen options for translating a single word or phrase), modern-day translators have to be extremely selective in their research and to know which language and reference websites to trust.

Such knowledge is generally gleaned as a result of years of (hopefully not too bitter!) experience – as well as through discussion with other freelance colleagues who work in the same subject areas and language combinations. Email, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, Facetime and the likes have revolutionised the facility and speed with which translation professionals around the world can liaise and cooperate, which is a good thing for translators and clients alike.

This veritable explosion of digital communication options has also ensured that clients can submit source documents to a translator and receive their completed translation back again in a fraction of the time it took previously. Gone are the days when I had to accost the poor postman each day to check whether a promised source text had arrived from a client so that I could count the words individually by hand (yes, really!) and ring the client with a quote.

Nowadays a Word document can tell us its own word count faster than we can say “arithmetic”, allowing a quote to be calculated and submitted in a matter of minutes. How things have changed…

I’m delighted to say that I’m still in touch – albeit occasionally in some cases – with almost all of the multilingual in-house team with whom I worked in those good old bad old days. Looking back at our experience of researching translations then, it seems like another world away – what’s hard to believe that it was just 30 short years ago.

Article from Ryanair in-flaght magazine, italian language

Lost In Translation

Lost in translation – when there simply is no “mot juste”…

Article from Ryanair in-flaght magazine, italian language

On a recent Ryanair flight to Beauvais airport, Paris – there to spend an all-too-brief weekend with two of my offspring – I happened across an article in the in-flight magazine that caught my eager linguist’s eye. It was a single page on which there were around 70 words.

Six of the words in question were Italian ones, and even though I don’t personally speak Italian, it transpired that I didn’t need to – for the definitions which accompanied them reminded me why cultural awareness is such an important issue when it comes to translation.

The focus of the article was “words that don’t exist in English”. Of course, having worked in the world of translation, I’m only too painfully aware of foreign words which have no direct equivalents in English. Indeed they have (both literally and metaphorically) caused me umpteen headaches over the years.

So here, for your didactic delectation and delight (courtesy of Ryanair!) are the Italian words for which there is no one-word equivalent in our native tongue…

BELLONE – A hunk who’s rather pleased with himself.

SPREZZATURA – The effortless technique of a great artist.

MELINA – Two players on the same team kicking the ball back and forth to kill time.

BAFFONA – An attractive moustached woman.

SLAPPARE – To eat everything even to the point of licking the plate.

OTTOBRATA – a picnic in October

Looking at this list, it’s easy to see that vocabulary evolves to suit the needs of the local people. Italian food is so fabulous that it was no surprise to find that the Italians have a term for licking the plate clean.  Ditto the concept of a picnic in October – certainly, up here in Scotland we probably don’t require a term for this, given that it isn’t a scenario we’d envisage too often (or at least not without packing thermal underwear).  And as for the term “bellone”, well, I couldn’t possibly comment as to whether the Brits might require a term for that…