Traddutore Traditore: A Note from the Dark Side

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A goatherd wants his youngest goat to learn how to parse language: “I did not have sexual relations with that women” is synactically well-formed but semantically, er, innovative Humpty Dumptyist as to “sexual relations.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass (Chapter 6):

An update to

I have joined the dark side of the Force.

I am going to be working awfully hard in the foreseeable future for a New York-based multinational investor relations “one-stop shop” as a freelance translation editor, working virtually out of New York until I establish my permanent residency here in Brazil.

Given the number of listed and dual-listed companies the one-stop services, that means I should probably be very careful when commenting on any listed companies. It is not a job that involves communicating on behalf of the client, exactly, but it does involve getting inside the client’s communications, in a certain sense.

You might well be in a position to learn, for example, that when the CEO of XYZ Corp. says “normal structural adjustments” in her conference call, she is sorely tempted to blurt out the word “meltdown!” instead. But that is her business, and rightly and properly ought to be.

At the orientation I had yesterday, I thought maybe the orienter ought to have insisted on this point with a little more oomph: Leakiness is very, very bad for business.

I personally think you ought to get signed confidentiality agreements from every single employee, and train hard on why conflicts of interest can get you fired in a transcontinental Internet minute.

For example, I have already translated a “notice to the market” by a Brazilian firm declaring that one of the local glossy business weeklies that I have decided are not worth the glossy paper they are printed on — this magazine quacks, but then pretty much all of them do, so you will not be able to guess which one I mean — has reported baseless, nonexistent facts (anonymously sourced; I checked, just out of curiosity) about its M&A plans.

It would be bad for business for me to say more.

I hereby pledge that nothing you will read in these postings from here on out will be based on insider information of any kind.

The practical question, then, is whether to keep on writing The New Market Machines?

I used to write a blog called The Red Actor (The Redactor), for example, to collect ancillary factoids relating to the mental processes of my job at the time, which was mainly assignment editing. Motto:

“Editor: a person employed by a newspaper, whose business it is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to see that the chaff is printed.” —Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915)

Maybe I should go to my WordPress control panel and start up Traduttore Traditore (“the translator is a traitor”), as I have been contemplating. It is not like millions of devoted NMM readers would be drinking cyanide-laced Kool Aid in Times Square if I did.

The very nice folks I work with have already shown me a heap of examples of this commonplace in action: the translator is a traitor.

Including an awful, awful case in which the customer has (1) discovered minor errors that do not alter the meaning of the communication in question in any way, (2) developed the suspicion that the translation was inaccurate in other ways, prompting the customer to (3) edit the translation radically and somewhat randomly, and (4) introducing serious translation errors in the process.

Minor technical errors along the lines of “the 3Q06” — a standard abbreviation for “the third quarter of 2006” — rather than “3Q06.”

Reading a lot of the African press in the last week or so, and watching the Indian press as well, I have seen tons and tons of this cheerfully nonstandard postcolonial English.

The most common difficulty: the verb-preposition idiom, which is tricky because there really no discernible logic to them, in many cases. You simply have to memorize these things. (Students of Arabic will know exactly what I mean.) The first example I run across from a quick visit to the Standard:

“President Kibaki was illegitimately sworn-in office in violation of the Constitution,” he said.

One of the reasons why I like the Merriam-Webster 10th Collegiate is because it treats these compounds as discrete lexical items. “Swear” is one word, “swear in” is another:

swear in transitive verb (Date: 1536) : to induct into office by administration of an oath

He was, therefore, “illegitimately sworn in to office.”

Or is it “sworn into”? Get a roomful of copy editors together from both sides of the Atlantic and you might even see fisticuffs on the subject, especially if alcohol is involved.

Even so, I have had scarcely any difficulty grokking what, say, the editorialists of the East Africa Standard or The Nation (Kenya) mean to say. Have you?

If these poor people worried about achieving absolutely perfect English as spoken in the faculty club at Oxford or Harvard before committing a single word to print, they would never publish anything.

As I always say, imagine the following. Someone sends you a note that reads: “Dood a big fatt angree elafunt is abawt to sit on yoo!”

You refuse to act on this information because the spelling and punctuation are atrocious.

You are a complete idiot, and a Darwin Awards candidate.

But this sort of vicious, pedantic nonsense is precisely what Veja magazine, for example, regularly peddles to its public.

The image “https://i1.wp.com/i113.photobucket.com/albums/n216/cbrayton/Stuff/capa380.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

“Speaking and writing properly”: Veja (Brazil) No. 2025 (September 12, 2007). At the top of the social-climber’s ladder, there seems to be nothing but a steep, Wile E. Coyote-style plunge back into the abyss. And see also ‘Too Much Idiuts: Why I Boycott Brazil Wikipedia’

So now I have to write a memo making this point: (1) the quality of the translation in question was (a) very good, from the point of view of stating information clearly and accurately, and (b) pretty darn good from the point of view of idiomatic English, but (3) the customer has introduced (a) changes to the information presented in the original source text, along with (b) mountains and mountains of very, very bad English as she is spoke, (c) for no good reason.

This because (4) shortcuts were introduced into editorial workflow.

As Nicolas Lemann was saying in the Columbia Journalism Review the other day (The Limits of Clear Language), about George Orwell’s “The Politics of the English Languge”:

Orwell worried about polluted language, but polluted information is more toxic

The customer is always right.

The customer is an idiot.

Sometimes you have to entertain both those thoughts at the same time.

The trick being to avoid pulling a Homer Simpson in such cases.

I cannot seem to find the script at the moment, but you know what I mean: Homer gets confused between the thoughts going on inside his head and the words coming out of his mouth. To comic effect.

No BeEr No Tv MaKe HoMeR gO cRaZy

Or maybe I should adopt my other Plan B: Blogging mainly in New World demotic Portuguese on O Bicho-Preguiça (“the sloth”).

Trying to write in a language you talk real ungood makes you focus on the fundamentals, on simplicity and clarity. Could be good for my writing.

Oh, well, I will have to think about that.

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