“Difficulties of a Beancounting Terminologist”

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The Accounting Review, December 1941.

Financial translators generally have years of experience in the business world prior to taking up translation. Unfortunately, even the best of them haven’t worked at every company in every industry. What’s more, they are restricted by the fact that terms vary greatly, even within the same language, country or industry. And there is just no convenient way of translating something that simply doesn’t exist yet in another country’s economic reality (any Americans out there ever have a ‘postal checking account’? Or preference shares issued to the government upon nationalization?). Financial translation is an art, not a science. —Zen and the art of multilingual financial reporting

This is precisely the big, fat hairy problem that is bugging me these days:

Language, translation and the problem of international accounting communication.

Author: Evans, Lisa
Journal: Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal
Pub.: 2004
Volume: 17
Issue: 2
Pages: 210(39)
ISSN: 09513574

Description: Language : English AN : 13613413 The use of technical terms to communicate accounting information can lead to misunderstandings when the meaning of such terms is not fully appreciated by the recipient of the information. The discipline of translation studies suggests that full equivalence in translation between languages is rare. This suggests that the risk of misunderstanding is exacerbated when technical terms are translated into another language. This paper examines the implications of mistranslations of technical terms in the context of theories from linguistics, which suggest that language influences the way we think. It uses three examples of accounting terminology to illustrate these problems. It concludes that the choice of an inappropriate label in the translation of accounting terminology is detrimental to international accounting communication and creates problems for users and preparers of translated financial statements as well as for researchers in, and students of international accounting and for those involved in harmonisation and standardisation of accounting.

IngentaConnect wants to charge me $35.00 to download and read the article.

Emerald Insight wants €13.00.

Judging from the article abstract, I do not think I want to pay that much.


Because it is proposing to tell me something I pretty much already know all too (freaking) well — though it does state the problem succinctly — and not proposing any solutions, or evaluating any attempts to come to grips with this bitch-goddess of all potential failures to commun’cate.

It also tells me the following, in the context of explaining to me how intractable financial reporting terminology issues, and failures to commun’cate, arise:

The US adopted many of the features of British professions and regulation[;] however, these developed to meet the specific local requirements. For example, there is little company law and no federal company law; and the Stock Exchange Commission (SEC), whose members are appointed by the President, has no equivalent in the UK.

Failures to commun’cate also occur because of simple failures to sweat the easy stuff.

The name of this band is, of course, the United States (or U.S.) Securities and Exchange Commission — or the Securities and Exchange Commission for short.

That is what the legislation creating it named it, and that is what it calls itself.

If you go into a music store and ask for records by Talking Hoods, you may not find what you are looking for — such as Remain in Light, the last really must-have album by Talking Heads.

On the other hand, what does Evans mean by “company law”?

Something along the lines of Brazil’s Lei das S.A?

I have been think about this a lot in light of financial statements that refer to this “company law” as “the Brazilian Corporate Law.” The name of this legislation is the Lei das Sociedades Anónimas (No. 6,404/1979).

How to refer to this in translation. “Brazilian legislation” generically, on second reference, maybe? The relevant Brazilian legislation.

To my ear, “Corporate Law” refers to the field of practice within the legal profession, in which one lawyers for corporations to keep them incorporated. Maybe “company law” is an generally accepted term on the other side of the Pond, though.

The Google Scholar entry on the Evans article — I found it on the EBSCOHost database offered by the Brooklyn Public Library — does lead me to an article that sounds incredibly interesting for its own sake:

Mennicken, A., Connecting worlds: The translation of international auditing standards into post-Soviet audit practice, Accounting, Organizations and Society (2007), doi:10.1016/j.aos.2007.06.001

The post-Soviets sometimes seem to have adopted the most brutal of brute-force approaches to untying this Gordian Knot.

“I’m a buddy of Yeltsin’s. Are you sure you want to audit me? I can have you fucking killed, you know.”

This, on the other hand, sounds like something I might pay good money to read:

Norvald Monsen and Wanda A. Wallace, Norsk Hydro’s communication to international capital markets: A blend of accounting principles, Scandinavian Journal of Management, Volume 13, Issue 1, March 1997, Pages 95-112

Companies operating internationally are faced with the dilemma of how to attract investors from multiple exchanges to provide capital. While each investor may prefer a report tailored to his or her country’s generally accepted accounting and auditing framework, such an approach can be prohibitively expensive. The selection of International Accounting Standards Committee (IASC) guidance for reporting suffers from its lack of acceptance to date by the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO). The choice of the United States Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (U.S.GAAP) and Generally Accepted Auditing Standards (U.S. GAAS) facilitate access to large capital markets on the New York Stock Exchange, AMEX or NASDAQ but may not communicate effectively to the European or other markets. Norsk Hydro, the subject of this paper, chose to blend its domestic and U.S. accounting principles, with some episodic integration of European audit report language. The potential communication and regulatory challenges that resulted are described, as are the plethora of topics for future research, given such experimentation in financial reporting.

I have clients of clients with this problem.

They are probably most interested in U.S. GAAP and GAAS, for practical reasons — they want to list their ADRs in New York — but they also do business under local accounting rules and concepts from the planet Tralfamadore, some of which do not always translate neatly into English as she is spoke.

What to do? What to do?

This case study, at least, might help the client to conceive of the situation as something a little more complex than just “this translation sucks.”

(“What do you mean depósito judicial has no precise terminological equivalent?” Naive conceptions of semantic equivalence can be surprisingly strong even among well-educated people. )

One that might actually require some mental effort and strategic decision-making on the client’s part.


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