Of tomatoes, translators and the importance of context

Car flashing headlights
Sometimes technology doesn’t make life easy for translators. Sometimes translators don’t make life easy for themselves either. I was recently trying to explain to a fellow translator why I always insist on receiving the actual formatted source text before starting work, but I think he thought I was just being awkward and a little bit old fashioned. I mean seriously, who, in this day and age, needs to see what a text will look like when it’s printed? He didn’t say as much but I could detect this young hipster’s incredulity at my “old-world” approach.


Now it might well seem old-fashioned and a little pernickity, but the fact that the files to be translated were in XML format and translated using a TM tool meant that, without the formatted source text, the translator was effectively translating blind. The same applies to any text you translate using translation memory tools.

Example of text in XML

A typical text in XML format

When you’re dealing with a text like this, it’s all too easy to miss out on the kind of contextual information that would otherwise help you to make appropriate translation decisions. If you can’t tell whether a segment is a caption for an image, a chapter heading or even an ordinary paragraph sentence how do you know what’s the best way to translate it? If you see the word Garderobe in the text, but can’t see the photograph that goes with it of a sign on a wall with the same word, how do you know not to translate it? You need to know what came before the sentence, what comes after it and what is around it before you can properly understand and translate it.


I always thought it was obvious that the context of a sentence is important when translating but apparently not everyone shares this view. But how do you explain a fairly nebulous and intangible idea like context?

Car headlight controls
After a couple of rounds of emails, which didn’t seem to be getting us anywhere, I started thinking of how people communicate with each other by flashing their car headlights. This simple act of flicking a switch several times usually means “go ahead, you can pull out in front of me“. When the recipient of your good deed thanks you by flashing their hazard lights, you flash your headlights again to say “you’re welcome” – same sign, same interaction but slightly different context.
Other times you might flash your lights at someone who is driving too slowly, driving on the wrong side of the road, or at someone who cuts in front of you in fast-moving traffic and the meaning is similarly clear. Some people even warn other drivers about a speed camera by flashing their lights. The number and frequency of flashes may change but the same basic “utterance” has a number of different meanings depending on the context.


To complicate matters, this simple language (which has been likened in sophistication to the communication skills of insects) is also culture-dependent. In France, apparently, flashing your lights means “stay where you are, I am not letting you pull out in front of me“. But you can still understand what each flash means because, assuming you’re paying attention, you are aware of the context and what is happening around you.


Although it’s probably a silly example that has nothing to do with translation per se, it does sum up the idea of context. Pretty much anyone can translate a sentence, but not everyone can come up with the right translation at the right time. To paraphrase the late Miles Kington, knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad. Let’s hope my translator friend figures it out too.


A handshake or poke in the eye?

A while back I read an article by the BBC discussing the declining use of “Dear…” in emails. I’ll admit that at the time I felt my blood pressure rise ever so slightly and I felt the stirrings of a weapons grade rant developing but I managed to restrain myself, resolving instead to go off, calm down and not get so worked up about trivial things.

But then just a couple of days ago I received an email which began:

Jody Byrne,
I am contacting you blah blah blah”

Like opening the door of a lit oven, this abrupt opener scorched my eyebrows and left me red-faced and speechless. The last time someone addressed me like this was when a particularly bad-tempered primary school teacher caught me dismantling my desk at the back of class.  Regaining my composure, I remembered the BBC article. Standards, it seems, really are slipping. From colleagues who write emails like scolding parents to students who address me like drinking buddies on a booze cruise, nobody it seems, knows how to write an email anymore. Now everyone has their own view of what the various salutations mean but for what it’s worth, here’s how my delicate little brain interprets them:

  • Dear …,
    I like this. It’s like a hearty and sincere handshake unless, of course, someone uses both your first and last names in which case I immediately assume it’s junk mail sent by a machine and generally delete it without reading. Okay, you don’t know whether I’m a Mr or Ms but better to take a chance and pick one or even go for “Dear Jody” even if you don’t know me. Anything is better than talking to me like those annoying letters banks send out offering loans I don’t need and can’t afford.

    Poke in the eye!

    Good day to you, sir.

  • Hi …,
    If I don’t know you, this is like calling around to my house while I’m having dinner. A friend will get away with it but a stranger will be the recipient of a tirade of abuse and need to step lively as I release the hounds. If you simply have to use “hi”, at least wait until the second or third email.

  • Hey …,
    The email equivalent of slapping someone on the backside, especially if there’s an exclamation mark.

  • Jody,
    What did I do wrong? Why don’t you like me? Why are you so angry? I think I’m going to cry!

  • No salutation at all
    Walk right up to me and give me a big ‘ol poke in the eye why don’t you?

As old-fashioned as it seems, you really can’t go wrong with “Dear…”.


How not to write a call for papers

I regularly receive emails with calls for papers for various conferences, journals and whatnot. Usually I’ll have a quick glance at the subject line and then delete the email if it’s not of interest. The subject line of one particular specimen caught my eye with the term “eco-translation”. Not knowing whether it was some form of environmentally aware translation or something else that might be really useful or interesting, I thought I might as well have a look. I’ve read the call several times and I’ll be honest, I still don’t really know what they’re talking about and I’m not sure I want to.  Calls for papers are supposed to inspire, encourage and explain. All this one does is bombard you with jargon, vague descriptions and non-explanations and then give you a bit of a headache.

Kid with blackboard asking what the hell are you talking about

Fuzzy wuzzy was a what now?

Eco-translatology is viewed as an ecological approach to Translation Studies with an interdisciplinary orientation. In the light of the affinity and isomorphism between translational ecosystems and natural ecosystems, Eco-translatology regards the scene of translation as a holistic translational eco-system, and focuses on the relationship between the translator and the translational eco-environment. A translational eco-environment is construed as a highly integrated entity that comprises the actual text, the cultural context and the human agents, as well as other tangible and intangible ingredients. In a translational activity, a translator both adapts and selects (or makes choices) in accordance with the specific configuration of the translational eco-environment. Eco-translatology thus describes and interprets translational activities (including the essence, process, criteria, principles, methods, and phenomena of translation, and the entire translational eco-system) in terms of such ecological principles as holism, relevance, dynamics, balance and harmony, together with ecological esthetics. Ancient Chinese/Eastern philosophies and cultural essentials are projected in this nascent field.



Say it, dont spray it!

Say it, don't spray it!

An office worker in New Zealand has been sacked for sending emails in block capitals, in a case that shows that the Internet too has its own culture and norms, and woe betide anyone who doesn’t respect this. Vicki Walker was forced out of her job as an accountant at a healthcare company after colleagues complained that her emails were too “shouty” and confrontational. Apparently she had sent emails with sentences which were entirely in capitals, sometimes bold, sometimes red or blue. Her defence was that she merely wanted to make sure that people understood what she was saying. Her employers, however, told a tribunal that she spread disharmony among her co-workers. Here is just one example from her emails that was presented to the tribunal: “TO ENSURE YOUR STAFF CLAIM IS PROCESSED AND PAID, PLEASE DO FOLLOW THE BELOW CHECK LIST.

Questionable grammar aside, this is nothing if not an eyesore, the visual equivalent of slapping someone about the head with a pair of dirty old underpants. The employment tribunal, however, found that although she had caused friction in her office and created something of a bad atmosphere, she had nevertheless been unfairly dismissed, not least because the company did not have a written style guide for writing emails. It’s not clear from the reports whether she was issued with a formal warning before being dismissed, but I have to say she should most definitely have been cautioned and sent on a sensitivity or communication course.

There was a time when I used to look at discussions on newsgroups and wonder why people would get so wound up by messages consisting almost entirely of capital letters. Nowadays I can see the point. It’s really, really, really annoying. Usually the best place to see the Caps Lock key abused so blatantly is on discussion forums when people are discussing highly emotive subjects. But I think some people either forget or do not realise that writing in capitals really is the online equivalent of standing on a table and screaming your head off. Some people just don’t care. It is a symptom, though, of a general inability on the part of a huge proportion of the population to communicate electronically. I’ve lost count of the number of emails I have received, from customers, colleagues and students which at best read like an SMS message and at worst like something from the Da Vinci Code. Some people seem to think that the ease and speed of electronic communication is carte blanche for informality and general laziness.

With written electronic communication, because there are no visual, non-verbal cues to aid communication (remember that the vast majority of normal communication relies on these cues) even the slightest deviation in expectations or conventions can spontaneously take on hugely complex and frequently inaccurate meanings. I’m still taken aback at emails that start “Dear Jody Byrne” – I don’t really know why I do but it makes me feel objectified and spoken down to, even though it’s probably because people don’t know whether I’m a “Mr.” or a “Ms.” on account of my first name. But everything you write, every comma, exclamation mark (in Germany they tend to come in threes and have been known to spark panicked stampedes of crazed urgency) and word in an email can be interpreted in any number of ways and without the visual cues to put it into context and help eliminate the incorrect interpretations, they become amplified and sometimes blown out of all proportion.

But writing in capitals, apart from being downright rude, irritating and the sign of a poor writer, can actually have the opposite effect to what the culprit is aiming for. You see, when we read, we don’t read each individual letter in a word, we recognise the word by its overall shape (unless of course it’s a word we don’t already know). Now the meaning of each word is stored along with a graphical representation or shape in our long-term memory. The way our brains work is that if information has a graphical association, we can retrieve it much more quickly than if it has no such association. In writing words in capitals you are destroying this graphical image which helps us recognise the word and retrieve its meaning. This means we have to analyse each word, letter by letter. The net result is that instead of instantly recognising a sequence of words, you’ve presented readers with something that’s harder and more time-consuming to read and increased the chance of readers not understanding it properly. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. Writing in capital letters is reminiscent of that clichéd character you used to see in English sitcoms where, when confronted with someone who didn’t speak English, the character would usually speak much, much louder and much more slowly as if the person’s inability to understand was due to them being both deaf and stupid.

Ways to stop shouty emails - No. 231

"Ways to stop shouty emails" - No. 27

There are so many things that people find irritating about electronic communication that it makes you wonder whether the time has come to do something about it. I think a good starting point would be to recall all computer keyboards and surgically remove the Caps Lock key. There is a way of disabling it using your computer’s registry but I think the symbolism of physically removing the keys and melting them down is pretty important. (I also think we should stop email programs having the ability to compose HTML emails too because this only encourages people to add colour to their uppercase missives and apart from being pointless, they take up bandwidth unnecessarily). If, after removing the Caps Lock keys, people persist in assaulting us with badly spelled (spellcheckers tend to ignore uppercase words) uppercase nonsense, the offenders should be glued to a giant Caps Lock key and driven through the streets on the back of a donkey and cart. Problem solved!


International English: Making A Case for Efficient and Clear Communication

First published as: Byrne, Jody (1999) “International English: Making A Case for Efficient and Clear Communication”. ATA Chronicle, Vol. XXVIII, No. 10, October 1999, p.37-42: American Translators’ Association

This article examines the current climate for translation and the new and expanding market presented by globalization and the Internet. It discusses the need for a clear and concise form of English as a means of communicating information to both native and non-native speakers of English. It looks at areas where streamlined, “International English” is useful, and presents a number of ways of achieving this through style, grammar, and syntactic recommendations. Continue reading