Monday, November 7, 2011

Learn English with a Totalitarian Dictator: The Cost of Lower Quality Translation

Kathleen: It happened in Spain. People do
really stupid things in foreign countries.
Frank: Absolutely. They buy leather jackets for much
more than they're worth. But they don't fall in love with fascist dictators!
—You’ve Got Mail

There is an asymmetrical relationship between the passage of a text from English to Spanish compared to the translation from Spanish into English. And this asymmetry is frequently unacknowledged, especially by people whose background is more technical than linguistic. For example, Silicon Valley is a very diverse, multicultural, multiethnic environment, but only superficially so. In reality, it is very homogenous: It is inhabited by engineers from all parts of the world. And it is also fiercely monolingual: English is really the only language used. It is almost inevitable that the sort of translation philosophy that would come out of this inbred environment is the “Lower Quality Translation” movement. And that this philosophy would be deaf to the asymmetry I mentioned above.

The asymmetry is this: An American or a British company might opt for a bad Spanish translation as a decent stand-in for a better text (Americans and Brits rarely have a clue about what it is like to live in a world where a lot of the text consumed on a daily basis is badly translated). In stark contrast, a (self-respecting) Spanish company would never choose that option when translating its material into English because, in Spain and many other parts of the world, Pidgin English is routinely an object of ridicule. It marks you out as a rube, as unsophisticated. (And I am guessing that stigma is far more “universal” than the urge to communicate at the cheapest possible cost.)    

For empirical proof, look no further than these YouTube clips of Francisco Franco reading out a proclamation in English

I think the video comes from the early days of the 1936 military insurrection that triggered the Spanish Civil War. Someone on Franco’s staff must have decided that an English-language speech was just the trick to get the British Government and public to side with the right-wing coup. One of the YouTube clips is entitled “Learn English with the Generalissimo.” Franco read the text phonetically and none of his aides took the trouble of smoothing out the rougher passages. (The subtitled Pidgin English video is even a mini-genre in Spain; this is from a taped message by the head of a major bank communicating with his British employees).

Like Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit, the literal meaning is sharply different according to the audience: perplexity for native English speakers, extreme hilarity for native Spanish speakers. Lower quality translation has a reputational cost that is hard to quantify in a monolingual English-speaking milieu, but which is nonetheless very, very real.

Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center, and H.B.O. International. To contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. You can also join his LinkedIn network by visiting the profile or follow him on Twitter.

1 comment:

Gueibor said...

You had me at "inbred environment"!
I guess this is one of those things where a certain amount of trial/error will be necessary for the LQT* advocates to understand the cultural and -ultimately- business implications. One upside I can think of is the crapload of hilarity that will probably be spawned in the process.

(*What the hell, let's jump on the acronym-wagon)