How Not to Mar IR: Notes on the Theory and Practice of Starting to Communicate Gooder in a Language Not Your Own

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There ought to be a law against mocking anyone for struggling to commmunicate in a language not their own –Chico Buarque, Budapest (my cite from memory probably inaccurate)

Let’s say you were invited to advise an investor relations firm, one that translates a lot of IR communications from a language other than English into English, on how to do this better.

By “better,” I guess I just mean that when you, gringo or ESL institutional investor guy, read this stuff — earnings reports, annual reports, corporate actions, 8-K and similar disclosures of “unexpected material events,” press releases, SEC filings, and that sort of thing — you can mostly forget about the language barrier and just focus on the information.

Supposing you were trying to give advice on how to get this done, tell me: Would the following explain it clearly to you?

Complicating factor: Assume that when you tell the people who ask you for this advice that the only way to judge whether or not you are doing a good job of this is to ask the end user of your product whether they think it is good or bad, they look at you blankly, as though this were a completely alien concept, and possibly a nefarious Communist plot.

“Give the customer what she wants, in the form she finds most useful.”

Is this a controversial principle for information services and products?

If so, I have wasted decades of my life worshipping false prophets of clear and effective communication. Perhaps I should just stop billing myself as a language professional and stick to writing bad country-western songs.

I really do find this subject really interesting for its own sake.

I have been doing a fair amount of research on the subject, and it really seems like something of a Wild West frontier in the institutional communications field.

On the other hand, I always figured that the New York-Europe connection created by the NYSE-Euronext merger would create some buzz around this topic, as they say.

It always seemed like a likely growth market for a word nerd like me. Which is why I decided to study up on the subject.

The EU, for example, is an institutional setting where, insanely, all official business has to be conducted in 29 different languages — eventually, at least, and Maltese seems to be the one that gives them the most trouble — and in a good half-dozen principal languages in real time.

This may be a bureaucratic nightmare from hell, but one thing it does do is foment a lot of thorough, systematic thinking, and practical experience, on how to do accurate, usable multilingual communications on a deadline without going insane.

Which is why it is interesting to look at the Euronext Web site, for example — it comes in French, English, Dutch and Portuguese — to see if you can pick up some general pointers.

Or not. (Their multilingual Web site project is actually still getting off the ground, and is very buggy, as far as I can see, but the quality of translation seems good, at least.)

Right?

Now, imagine you are asked to provide advice on a topic like this and wind up getting into an argument about whether taking a “best practice” approach to the problem is itself actually a best practice, or a sensible way to proceed.

Why is an article on how, say, Polish or Scandinavian or Hispanic Latin American translation departments approach such problems, or how the World Bank translation unit approaches EN>Language X translation of official communications, be relevant to translating New World Lusophone earnings reports into Wall Street Journalese?

Why would it not be?

Right?

Or why would it be relevant to compare translations prepared by — let us call it Translation Dept. X-9 — and translations prepared by other financial translation desks, to see which is better, and why? And whether the competition does not have good solutions that you can reverse engineer and adopt yourself?

Why would it not be?

Right?

But the more I read Amy Einsohn’s book on copyediting for corporate communications, the more I respect her hard-headed Yankee practicality.

One of the points she makes very, very clearly is that you should, as they say, “choose your battles.” Prioritize. Sweat the big stuff first and save the small stuff for another day, when your life is not so hectic.

Perfection may not be possible in any ultimate sense — and God knows that a lot of what gets uploaded to the PR and IR newswires by Ivy League-educated native-speaking flacks is not exactly Samuel Johnson, either.

Still, achieving some improvement is always preferable to achieving no improvement, for simple lack of the will to try.

Which is why you might consider telling this client that the real problem it has is not pubication style — which is mostly icing on the cake, although down the road, learning all you can about “plain English” can only be a really useful thing — but term translation and terminology management.

I mean, consider the “courtesy translation” — their translator decided to translate it “convenience translation,” but you get the point — provided by the Editora Abril, shown above.

It contains tons of minor usage errors and infelicities, but on the whole, it is quite a bit better than the run of the mill of financial translations that you would be reading a lot of — assuming you were asked to give an informed opinion on this subject.

Picky little shit, like

Brazilian reais (R$000s)

My copyeditor’s intuition says that the names of foreign currencies are written in lower case when spelled out in headings or running text, and not italicized.

In addition to citing chapter and verse of your standard publication guidelines, you might tell this hypothetical client, you can always look for seat-of-the-pants evidence that this makes sense, researching the usage by googling it, using, say, a “site:fed.gov” modifier.

Look it up in, say, the U.S. Government Printing Office style guide section on foreign money. I have this whole spiel I do on the relative priority you give to

  1. Official usage
  2. Standard dictionary usage
  3. Generally accepted usage
  4. Common usage
  5. Just making words up

when trying to figure out how to word something.

But this spiel tends to make some people’s eyes glaze over.

It helps if you give concrete examples.

When in doubt, and in a pinch, you can always just plain cheat: hunt up somebody else’s filing or release — somebody you think is worth imitating — and model what you do after them.

But in the end, not the biggest deal.

On the other hand, the financial tables in this Abril report use a consistent style for line items, for example.

Sentence case or Headline Case, Also Known as the “Up” Style?

In the grand scheme of things, it does not matter vastly which you use.

Just so as you choose one or the other and use it consistently.

Anyway, I am going to stop thinking about this stuff for today. Screw it.

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