American Translators Association — The Onionskin Archives

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American Translators Association — The Onionskin Archives

These items first appeared in “The Onionskin”, a regular feature of ITI Bulletin and ATA Chronicle . Onionskin author Chris Durban welcomes feedback and leads at (fax: +33/1 43 87 70 45).

If you use any of this material in presentations, please acknowledge the author appropriately.

© 2001 C. Durban


The name of the game: buck-passing in France?
Lurching down the campaign trail
Customer service: TLS keeps its eye on the ball
Literary translator wins appeal in Germany
Smoke got in their eyes
Web tips: going international in style
Global reach: Why my cockroaches always run do?
Hot off the press: Traduction—faire les bons choix
Wanted: skilled linguists
Stolen Lives is Oprah Book Selection in US
Cadaver in the cooler in Austria?
Budget vs. value in the UK
Botched bilingual label a formula for recall
Mistranslation in Movieland
Translation volunteers reach across borders
Refreshing reaction in Russia
Linguists: Uncle Sam Wants You
STC Translation Kit
British Airways: fit to be tongue-tied
Relief for refugees?
Youth fights pot plot in Albania
French bank victim of old school try
Pitching with polish—where does the buck stop?

February 2001

The name of the game: buck-passing in France?

Onionskin readers in North America and the UK were quick to flag skewed English texts in the advertisements that announced French aerospace/defense/IT giant Thomson-CSF's recent name change.

The campaign, which cost the company FRF 100 million, was launched to consolidate a wide range of operations under a single name and brand: Thales – er, make that THALES, reflecting the French penchant for full caps. In addition to extensive in-house palavers and promotion, the corporation ran full-page advertisements in a range of premium press vehicles in eight languages.

Unfortunately, its English ad copy—devised and fine-tuned by Euro RSCG Corporate—provides yet another stunning example of the pitfalls that lie in wait for those whose international ambitions outstrip their advisers' expertise. Errors ranged from odd punctuation to distinctly French word choice and syntax. In the words of one UK media professional: “The advertisement reads like a poor computer translation. Inevitably it creates the opposite effect to that intended, instantly undermining the company's claim to be global.” Example: Thales is “fully global and dual.” The company is “Dual because, our technologies are used in both military and civil businesses.”

For the Onionskin, efforts to identify just how the text careered off track followed a depressing model, as our investigation triggered a predictable dash for cover.

In Paris, Euro RSCG detailed a quality control process that involved review by its UK affiliate Euro RSCG Wnek & Gosper. A W&G rep acknowledged tweaking the lead-in (which contained no errors) but retreated and referred us back to the Paris office when asked about the body copy. This time around, Paris did not return our repeated calls. And while Paris-based translation agency Eurotexte acknowledged contributing to the project, a representative insisted it had worked only out of English; even then, it had taken care to note on its invoice that tight deadlines meant its output was "not for publication".

And Thales? Both Euro RSCG and company representatives claim the text was run past the foreign subsidiaries, which issued neither peep nor squawk. Cornered, one source said the flawed source text had been drafted by a native English speaker in the communications department of Thales itself—a possibility, but hardly likely and certainly not input stylish enough for an international campaign. Most striking for the Onionskin was the persistence with which the native French speakers we talked with at both Euro RSCG and Thales insisted the English text was fine. Criticism was unfailingly brushed off as “subjective” axe-grinding—a salutary reminder of one of the factors that differentiates foreign-text purchases from widget buying. Worth repeating: when purchasing texts in a foreign language, buyers simply cannot judge what has been delivered. And while native English-speakers in both companies did acknowledge, when pushed, that this one had slipped through the net, none of them seemed to have been involved in the text development/vetting process. Nor had they made their views known to—or been heard by—French management.

The incident raises another issue. Regardless of who authored the initial text, does a communications agency not have a moral responsibility to tell its client that the copy they have proposed will not produce the expected results? At the very least, should it not do its best to produce copy… without typos? Surely producing and signing client-validated garbage cannot be a sound long-term strategy (can it?). Euro RSCG touts itself as the world's fifth largest communications network, with 202 agencies in 75 countries; Wnek & Gosper were voted “one of the UK's coolest companies to work for” by the Guardian newspaper. These are not small-time players.

Our independent French media experts' response to such existential anguish is telling. The slip-up at Thales, they assure us, reflects a process that is “as flawed as ever: the DIY mentality of the French inner circle, no testing whatever, no native English-speaker reading the proofs.”

Not that French executives hold a monopoly in this area. Contacts in other countries claim they observe precisely the same phenomenon in senior corporate spheres.

For constructive input, we turned to Peter Prowse, managing director of UK-based Prowse & Company Limited. “Having spent 25 years advising corporations on how to communicate more effectively, I suppose I should be getting blasé and philosophical about the basic—but often very expensive—errors that I see chief executives and their advisers making. But I still get hot under the collar,” he told us. In the Thales case, Prowse declined to comment on the detail of the English used—“there are skilled and professional translators who can do that far better”. Instead he urged senior managers at Thales and other non-English-speaking companies seeking to present themselves to the world in English to question whether they were confident in the abilities of their communications advisers.

“Don't just leave it to the advertising agency to get it translated,” he insisted. “At least ensure that it is checked by competent English-speaking professionals. And give them time to check it properly, in the knowledge that the text will have a high profile in expensive advertising media.”

Mr. Prowse agreed with other specialists that companies serious about targeting the English-speaking world might consider having their advertising and communications material created by English speakers in the first place, and then translated back into their native tongue.

Had this been the case, Thales' chief executive might well have had something to say about the quality of the French appearing in big, expensive advertisements in Les Echos.

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Lurching down the campaign trail

News buffs tracking US election-night returns on the French-language version of CNN's website ( got more than they bargained for in a fierce battle pitting Buisson (“Shrub”) against Gore. Candidate Shrub also ran on the French version of the official site of Governor Bush's own Republican Party. Curiously, Al Gore came through the same software—but not the election—in one piece. Once again machine translation (MT) was the culprit, leading journalist Clarisse Verrier to suggest that Americans consider replacing their translation software packages along with their voting machines.

MT had already met its match earlier in the campaign, when a multilingual version of the Bush/Gore debate transcripts featured pages of garbled gist with priceless howlers. For Germans, moderator Jim Lehrer greeted die zwei Anwärter, Reglerbusch und Vizepräsident Zwickel —roughly "the two applicants: Regulation-device-Shrub and Vice President Gusset”. The Spanish rendition promised a far more bizarre duel, with shrub in one corner and the vice-president governor's spilled blood in the other ( los dos candidatos, arbustos y vice presidentes sangre derramade del gobernador ). Syntax and grammar made entire chunks of the text incomprehensible for foreign-language readers.

Yet on election night, human language professionals were also on duty. Interpreter Mary Fons i Fleming was one, on standby at a radio station in downtown Barcelona, primed to go on the air immediately in the event of a major political statement.

“Part of the time I was a bit of a radio journalist myself, listening to CNN and relaying to local news staff what was going on,” she told the Onionskin. When Gore supporters began chanting “Recount! Recount!” Fons i Fleming passed the information on to broadcasters immediately. And while the presidential candidates made no statements themselves, she did interpret comments from both sides' campaign managers, plus the acceptance speech of Hillary Rodham Clinton, elected senator for the State of New York.

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Customer service: TLS keeps its eye on the ball

“Our presentation on Tuesday was a great success; those we were communicating with greatly appreciated being able to read what was going on in their own language.” /“Wonderful service! The translation surpassed our expectations and we hope to work with you again in the near future.”/“On time, in full. Many thanks. It is a few years since I have needed to use TLS, but clearly the service level is still as high!”

A steady flow of unsolicited letters of praise and thanks explain how The Language Service Ltd became one of three national finalists in the Customer Service category of the Parcelforce Small Business Awards for 2000.

The scheme, now in its ninth year, is one of the UK's major awards programs for small businesses. In 2000, The Language Service was the only translation company shortlisted in a field of 3,240 entrants from manufacturing, retailing and other sectors.

Judges were particularly impressed with the strategies devised by TLS to monitor client retention and nurturing. Together, these reflect its quest to select and retain feedback-driven clients whose profiles fit in well with its own communicative approach. The reason is simple: “We find that 10% of our client base gives us 90% of the grief and hassle, while 90% give us only 10% of the grief,” says Managing Director Doug Embleton, FITI, who—not surprisingly—prefers to concentrate corporate resources on the latter group.

To maintain focus, football fan Embleton and his team track clients' cumulative spend with TLS during the financial year and place those that exceed a certain level in a “Premiership League”. Figures are reviewed monthly. Other promising candidates go into a “feeder” league, monitored closely to identify those with the potential to move up to Premiership level. The Language Service has so far seen the number of companies in its Premiership League increase each year.

“The lists serve as constant reminders to us that we cannot afford to get sucked into the grief and hassle scenarios which greatly dilute the time and attention we need to devote to ‘good' clients,” Embleton told the Onionskin.

This year's Parcelforce Awards ceremony was held at the Millennium Hotel, Mayfair, on January 23. Hosted by Michael Buerk of BBC News, it was attended by Patricia Hewitt, Minister for Small Business and e-Commerce, who stressed the importance of small businesses to the health and wealth of the regional and national economy.

While The Language Service was ultimately edged out, placing among the top three in a field of well over three thousand speaks for itself. For Doug Embleton, the company's success in communicating its own clients' messages to business partners in other countries and languages is directly linked to a team approach and commitment to client service that has helped it find and consolidate its niche.

Stop press : a full transcript of the Euronext / Rencontres Traduction Financière workshop for French listed companies producing annual reports in English is now available in a PDF file on the Euronext Paris website [see “Réussir son rapport annuel en anglais” in information pédagogique ]. (And yes, discerning readers will note some Onionskinnish finger-wagging therein). The seventh full-day training event for financial translators, hosted by Euronext (ex Paris Bourse) will be held on June 22 at the Palais Brongniart in Paris. You read it first here.

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April 2001

Literary translator wins appeal in Germany

The long-running court battle between German translator Karin Krieger and publisher Piper Verlag ended on March 1 when Munich's Oberlandesgericht, the higher regional court of appeal, handed down its verdict in Krieger's appeal from a previous decision (“Wheels of German justice turn, turn, turn” in The Onionskin, October 2000).

This time the court ruled in Krieger's favor on all counts, ordering Piper Verlag to (re)publish her five existing translations of novels by Italian author Alessandro Baricco, and to pay her damages. The original dispute arose when Krieger applied for royalties under Germany's so-called "best-seller clause". Many literary translators are paid a simple per-book fee for their texts, but under German law they can collect a share of the royalties when a book becomes an unexpected bestseller.

After an initial standoff, Piper agreed and made a first payment. Yet days later they did an about-face, removing Krieger's versions from bookstores without warning. The books were replaced with hastily commissioned retranslations by a more amenable translator (read: no royalties). Cover and ISBN numbers were identical, although many critics insisted the new translations were inferior. Translators' associations were quick to condemn what they called "punishment" for Krieger's insistence on claiming her share of a reward they said was her legal right. Ms Krieger lamented the destruction of her work for what appeared to be purely commercial reasons.

Piper has until April 9 to appeal the ruling, and as this issue went to press such action appeared unlikely. A Piper representative was unable to comment when we called.

Krieger says: “I think this ruling is very important for all literary translators, and it can strengthen our rights as authors , as creators of a unique text. It says clearly: destroying intellectual property is not allowed, it is a crime.” Both UNESCO's Nairobi Recommendations of 1976 and the Bern Convention recognize translators as authors and hence owners of the copyright to their works.

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Smoke got in their eyes

The English version of a German website dedicated to fine cigars and pipes recounts Nuremberg-based Vauen's 150-year history in awkward yet understandable prose. And “5 generations of passionate pipemakers” has a jolly ring to it, despite spluttering Disney-character overtones. But the French version is definitely not for kids: 5 générations des faiseurs des pipes par passion translates roughly as “five generations of (male) specialists in blow jobs”, with passion, no less. As Vauen founder Ernst Eckert turned in his grave, great-great-grandson and current chairman Alexander set the record straight for the Onionskin. Vauen take great pride in their craft, which is pipe making, full stop. The flawed text had been produced and displayed by a pipe dealer, without Vauen's knowledge or permission.

Distributor Cyber-Cigar-Direct confirmed as much through manager Herr Jaudzims, who confessed that the French text was the work of his daughter, with the help of a dictionary. A native German speaker who studied French in school, she is not a professional translator.

Most slipshod translations investigated by the Onionskin result from poor planning, tight budgets, or both. This time money was definitely the obstacle.

“We are a small company,” Mr. Jaudzims told the Onionskin, “and we have no budget for translation.” He assured us the Spanish version was better—he'd done it himself, and speaks Spanish like a native (well, almost). Professional translators who visited that version did not agree. “Gibberish,” said Carmelo Cancio, a Spanish translator and communications specialist in southwestern France. According to Mr. Jaudzims, Cyber-Cigar-Direct is an exclusively Internet-based distributor, selling premium wares to customers around the world. It has no plans to modify the translations, he told us (“Geld! Geld!”).

When word got out via online discussion groups, language professionals streamed to both sites [ and ] and returned in stitches. Here's hoping some of them are into smoking paraphernalia. A surge in sales could generate cash to commission a professional translation and restore the honor of the Eckert family.

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Web tips : going international in style

Businesses seeking a less risqué approach to globalizing their Web presence would do well to heed recommendations from speakers at a conference organized in December 2000 by LISA, an association set up to promote the “localization and internationalization industry”. High quality translation is important, of course. But presenters offered other tips:

• A web site is an integral part of a company's marketing materials. Don't lose sight of this; don't let yourself be confused into thinking “it's technical”.

• Cultural adaptation may be necessary. There is nothing more irritating than a web site run by a company in the US offering users a “toll free” number—useless to visitors reading the site outside the USA. Nor is there any point in giving out a company's main phone number on a translated web site (say, Spanish or French) if the people answering the phone “back home” don't speak Spanish or French to handle incoming calls. In such cases, it is far better to set up different phone numbers in each language area.

• Shallow localization irritates. Translating the surface layer of a web site while leaving all the meatier stuff in the original language can raise user expectations only to disappoint, as visitors come up against something they can't understand—not an ideal marketing tactic. Telecoms operator Orange offers a site in French and German, but users clicking "contact us" find no details of a French or German office to contact. (They can always link up with Orange in the Dominican Republic or Hong Kong).

• Graphic design becomes more critical in a multilingual environment. Keep it clear and keep it simple. Be aware that language itself cannot always be squeezed into a monolingual designer's idea of style.

• Do not embed text in images—there is too much scope for error and corrections are costly. French visitors to one US web-phone company's site were greeted by an "allels gratuirs" button (correct spelling: appels gratuits for toll-free number). Sleek high-tech image? Hardly. Nick Rosenthal, Managing Director of UK localization specialists Salford Translations urges a proactive approach: “Web designers love putting buttons on sites that contain text embedded as part of a GIF or JPEG graphic. We need to train them out of this,” he says. Rosenthal cites his own company's website as an example of how to avoid doing this.

• Bear in mind that the same text requires a different number of letters (or even words) in different languages. Design to allow for text expansion. A games software company pleaded with one localizer to shorten the German word Regenbogen because it was longer than its English equivalent "rainbow". The product was an educational package designed to teach children words. (picture UK youngsters faced with “Look, there's a rainbw., Daddy!”?)

For more practical tips on adapting web sites, readers recommend Lingo Systems “The Guide to Translation and Localisation”, by Lingo Systems, ISBN 0-9703948-0-2 (revised edition, published 2000).

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June 2001

Global reach: Why my cockroaches always run do?

Going international? First steps for small and medium-size companies with cross-border ambitions have long included slapping a globe on their business card and a suitable prefix on their name. Today a bi- or multi-lingual website is often part of the process.

One such hopeful is pest control specialist Eurocafard—literally "Euro-cockroach". This Paris-based company (2000 sales: FRF 2,000,000) gave the globe logo a pass, but climbed enthusiastically aboard the internet train, commissioning a bilingual French/English website from Cyberexcalibure in early 2001.

“Our client base is primarily French-speaking at present,” says manager Daniel Zwarts. “But we're growing. I think it is important to reach out to people in their own language, and the international language of communication is definitely English.” Since Mr. Zwarts and his employees speak only French, they struck a deal with the site developer, who promised to provide suitable texts. And on April 1—an omen?— came on line in French and English.

Visitors are greeted with a catchy "Small animals nibble you the life? They give you thecockroach? Eurocafard is with your services. But which are we?”—a sure sign of translation software run amok. Body copy is marginally better, with word-for-word digressions into the pernicious habits of cockroaches (moving “with the speed of coyotes”), bedbugs and other “harmfuls”. Pest control is no bed of roses: “Various insects elect to live in our homes, but the fact is that the cockroaches easily obtain the palm of disgust.”

Aware that the site does not quite make the grade, Mr. Zwarts assured us a rewrite was currently under way by… two native English speakers encountered in a local cybercafé. Out of the frying pan into the fire? Clearly, monolingual buyers of translation simply do not know how to commission suitable work.

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Hot off the press: Traduction —faire les bons choix

June brought good news for Mr. Zwarts and his fellow French-speaking buyers of translation, with the publication of a French adaptation of ITI's "Translation, getting it right".

The original English version of this client-education brochure—available in paper form from the ITI office and as a .pdf file on the ITI website—drew heavily on stories first published in the Onionskin. It was well-received in the UK, where LNTO, the Languages National Training Organization, commissioned a 10,000-strong print run to celebrate the European Year of Languages.

The French version, adapted by copywriter Adam Edery, features English-to-French examples chosen to bring the message home to its target readers. Experience shows that even fluent speakers of foreign languages rarely pick up on style and other errors when texts are not into their native tongue.

Was Mr. Edery aware of how carefully the translation community itself was likely to examine his text? “It's only natural,” he laughed. “Translators identify so closely with the work they produce that a hyper-critical eye goes with the territory—especially when they know the original document was written in another language!”

One of five sponsors of this first foreign-language edition is PricewaterhouseCoopers, the world's largest professional services firm. For Jill Riotor, senior manager of the firm's translation department in Paris, the new brochure's appeal lies in its clear style and examples that speak to readers.

“We look forward to distributing it widely among our clients here in France,” says Riotor, whose unit reports annual revenues of FRF 10,000,000. 70% of this figure is billed directly to clients, i.e., represents translations not undertaken in connection with the company's broader engagements. Yet even this relatively sophisticated public—clearly more accustomed to the international scene than Eurocafard and its customers—is not always aware of how to go about getting translations done. Still, translation software is less of a problem in PwC's market segment, Riotor told the Onionskin.

And even price-driven clients tend to return to the fold when skewed texts produced by unqualified suppliers upset a planned financial operation. This happened recently when a poorly-translated prospectus for a syndicated loan (produced by another supplier) had participating banks at loggerheads.

The challenge, as always, is to give users like these the information they need to avoid such problems before they arise.

Other sponsors of Traduction—faire les bon choix were the French national translators' association SFT, Euronext Paris, VO Paris, International Corporate Communications and Rencontres traduction financière.

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Wanted : skilled linguists

Readers report a spate of articles on translation and interpreting in the national and international press in recent months. A common theme: signs of a crunch ahead as users of translation and interpreting services scramble to cope with a shortage of expert talent.

On March 16, The Guardian's Ian Black filed a report from Brussels, warning "As the EU prepares to incorporate a dozen new languages, vital translators and interpreters are thin on the ground.” The European Commission already employs 1,900 in-house translators and interpreters—12.5% of its total staff—and spends an annual 180 million buying in work from freelance suppliers. And yet, says the Commission, it still costs only 2 euros (£1.25) per citizen per year, or 0.8% of the total EU budget “to [enable] all European citizens and their governments to play a part in the building of Europe, in their own mother tongue.”

Plans to take in up to 12 new candidate countries in the years ahead are bound to lead to strains, since each new tongue multiplies the potential number of language combinations many times over. Cultural diversity, national pride and democratic legitimacy are critical issues, with linguistic misunderstandings offering enormous scope for perceived slights and worse. On the whole, Black gives the EU interpreters and translators high marks for keeping communication flowing [,7792,457772,00.html ].

Across the Atlantic, the New York Times insisted on April 16 that a shortage of linguists was undermining national security.

Example: in the early 1990s, the FBI held videotapes, manuals and notebooks on bomb making seized from Ahmad Ajaj, a Palestinian serving time in federal prison for passport fraud. In phone calls taped by prison authorities, Mr. Ajaj guardedly told another terrorist how to build the bomb, wrote journalist Diana Jean Schemo. Unfortunately, all of these clues were in Arabic. Not until after the explosion at the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993 were they reviewed by an Arabic speaker. The explosion killed six people and injured more than a thousand. In 2000, says the article, American colleges and universities graduated only nine students who majored in Arabic.

Similarly, testimony presented to a US Senate subcommittee in September 2000 indicated that roughly half of the State Department's diplomatic postings are filled by candidates without the requisite foreign language skills. Not to mention thousands of scientific and technical papers that go untranslated, depriving analysts and policy makers of vital information about the state of foreign research in a range of areas. Thus in 1998, nuclear tests in Pakistan and India caught US policymakers off guard. While official documents on the failure of US intelligence to translate information remain classified, an observer notes that the explosions "should not have been surprises.” [ ].

For the Onionskin, such articles are welcome signs of a growing awareness of the role played by professional translators and interpreters. It is a good time to be a language professional. And a good time, too, for the industry itself to speak up, letting government authorities, the private sector and the general public know just how translators and interpreters work—and how their skills can be put to use by others.

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August 2001

Stolen Lives is Oprah Book Selection in US

At age five, Malika Oufkir, the daughter of an adviser to the King of Morocco, was adopted by the king as a playmate for his daughter. Fourteen years later, her father was executed for his role in an attempt to assassinate the ruler, and Oufkir, her five siblings and mother were thrown in prison. After surviving fifteen years of unbelievably harsh conditions, including ten in solitary confinement, they tunneled to freedom with a teaspoon and their bare hands, only to be caught and returned to jail. The family was finally released in 1996, after 24 years of incarceration.

Malika Oufkir, now 48, tells their story with what critics have called “unflinching and heartrending honesty” in La prisonnière , which became a bestseller in France. The book was translated into English by Ros Schwartz, MITI, and published in Britain under the same title by Doubleday in 2000. On May 16, it was assured of bestseller status in the US market when it became an official selection of Oprah's Book Club, hosted by US television personality Oprah Winfrey.

By all accounts, this was the first time a work in translation was featured on the show, and only the second time a non-fiction book was chosen.

In the United States, La Prisonnière is sold as Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail —the French title used in the UK was deemed too "foreign" for American palates. But US publisher Talk Miramax Books made no attempt to Americanize Schwartz's British English. “We didn't feel it was necessary; it's a good translation,” said Jonathan Burnham, president and editor in chief, in a telephone interview. Talk Miramax Books is a small publisher by US standards, bringing out only 25 titles at year, and he was naturally delighted when Stolen Lives was selected by Oprah. “The book was already doing well, but this rocketed it onto a much higher level and we went back for another print run immediately,” Burnham told the Onionskin. US sales to date are around 620,000.

The English translation was originally commissioned in London by Marianne Velmans, publishing director of Doubleday at Transworld, after a colleague flagged the book's success in France.

“In reading the French, I was struck by Malika Oufkir's courage and resilience,” says Velmans, adding, “I'm pleased that people all over the world have responded to it.” Pleased, too, at the book's commercial success: while Oprah's Book Club is not shown on British TV, broadcasts in Australia, New Zealand and other English-speaking markets outside the US mean that overseas shipments have soared.

Does Stolen Lives not give the lie to publishers' frequent claims that translated books don't sell well? Ms. Velmans demurs. The book is not fiction, she says, and its popularity is based on the human story it tells, which should work in any language.

Jonathan Burnham agrees that selling fiction in translation poses special challenges. With Stolen Lives , those never came up: “People are barely aware it is a translation,” he says. “It stands by itself.” His comments are a reminder that the better a translation, the less visible the translator—and the less aware readers are that a writer other than the original author has been at work.

Ros Schwartz, who has translated over thirty books, acknowledges the paradox but has few complaints: “I feel privileged to have been able to use my skills to give Oufkir a voice in English that will let her reach a much wider audience,” she says. An excerpt of her translation can be viewed online.

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Cadaver in the cooler in Austria?

Home from the supermarket, an Austrian consumer got a start when she took a closer look at a package of deep-frozen focaccia bread. This alternative to pizza is popular in italophile Austria, says Brigitte Scott. Yet a translation glitch on the box she bought, produced by Fooditalia Firenze s.r.l., raised eyebrows all around.

Instructions for preparing the dish are rendered serviceably in Italian, French, English, German and Spanish. The problem comes in the storage instructions for home freezers, where the original Conservazione domestica slides into an awkward Domestic preservation in English and bizarre Konservierung Das Dienstmädchen —literally Conservation The Maidservant—in German. Whodunit? The obvious suspect is unedited (and mistyped—the "m" is left out of Dienstmädchen on the box) machine translation, which relies on replacing words rather than analyzing meaning. Yet this was no open-and-shut case: the Onionskin has seen similar and worse produced by non-translators working dictionary in hand.

When we phoned, a Fooditalia Firenze representative told us that the trail was cold: the prime (human) suspect was no longer with the company, which has itself changed hands since the boxes were designed and printed. She assured us that a review of translations on all of the company's packaging materials would start shortly. Foul play seems unlikely: the incriminated package was vegetariana .

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Budget vs. value in the UK

As if mad-cow disease and foot-and-mouth weren't enough, British tourism regularly finds itself battling another scourge: bumpy translation of promotional materials.

The latest victim is Travelodge, the UK's no. 2 player at the budget end of the hotel market. The company operates 207 hotels with 11,000 rooms, plus a skewed multilingual website .

“I've seen loads of bad translations, but it's particularly mystifying when a large company involved in tourism is so clueless,” says the industry observer who flagged the site. Our investigation confirmed that the unwieldy texts are in fact unedited machine translation.

“We are a predominantly UK company, but we want to grow,” a Travelodge spokesperson told the Onionskin. “We thought speaking our foreign customers' languages was a good way to start.” Unfortunately, as this column regularly points out, no one speaks or writes the way computer programs translate. At the chain's website, gibberish starts with the very first word: its lead-in “No 1 in business & leisure throughout the UK” is rendered Aucun 1/Kein 1/Nessuno 1 […] in French, German and Italian, since the software failed to recognize No ( sans point) as "number" and translated it instead as "not [a single] one.”

Travelodge says its choice of machine translation stemmed from budget considerations, but the spokesperson insisted that a final pass by human proofreaders—personal friends and business partners—corrected many mistakes. That was when a clerical error kicked in, she said. Due to a mix-up, it was the uncorrected file that was uploaded for the site developers. A radical revamp is coming soon, the company promised.

Travelodge's experience underscores once again how bargain hunting by corporate bean-counters can undermine efforts to reach out to foreign customers. For every budget-conscious traveler willing to trawl through the nonsense to discover the chain's low price and book a room, how many French and German businesspeople will simply click on to a competitor's more readable and—let's face it—less insulting prose?

Speaking at a localization conference in California, Richard Mound, head of Interactive, IMC, IBM Europe, summed it up nicely: “When you're writing stuff for a web site, you're actually writing marketing literature. Never forget that.” How many people would seriously recommend using machine translation for marketing literature?

Once again from the top: translation software programs are for inbound texts (i.e., to find out, sort of, what the other guys are up to). For outbound texts designed to sell, promote and convince, it's gotta be human, or, at the very least, carry a warning/apology.

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Botched bilingual label a formula for recall

On July 7, Indiana-based Mead Johnson Nutritionals announced that it was recalling 4.6 million cans of Nutramigen Baby Formula due to misleading Spanish instructions on bilingual labels. Company officials say that formula produced with the misleading directions could cause illness or even death. A translation error? Not exactly, said our contact, although language did come into play. “When we redesigned our labels, instructions for the concentrated version of the product were inadvertently mixed up with those for the ready-to-use powder form,” explained spokesman Pete Paradossi.

The mix-up, which concerned only Spanish instructions on the back of the label, went unnoticed during proofreading. Had the same mistake occurred in an all-English text, it might well have been caught.

Not until a Spanish-speaking consumer phoned to ask about the discrepancy did the error come to light. The company moved quickly to issue a recall notice and set up free bilingual helplines to field consumers' questions. Happily, it has received no reports of infant illness or death. Mead Johnson Nutritionals could not put a price on the recall, which looks set to be hefty. “We are talking about millions of cans,” said Mr. Paradossi ruefully.

There is nothing like a health scare to focus corporate attention, especially in the litigious United States. While Mead Johnson says it is generally satisfied with the translations it buys from a supplier in Chicago, it confirmed that all translation and label production processes are undergoing a stringent review to ensure that it is not caught out again.

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Mistranslation in Movieland

On July 23, publicists for Hollywood heartthrob Brad Pitt and his wife Jennifer Aniston called for the German edition of Marie Claire to retract its report that the couple is expecting a baby. The report appeared in the German version of an interview Pitt gave to journalist Elisa Leonelli. Leonelli blamed “mistranslation”, which caught a web-trawling reader's eye.

Ah, Tinseltown.

According to Pitt spokeswoman Cindy Guagenti, “[Leonelli] asked him a question about adopting a baby, and he said, ‘That's not true, I don't know where you heard that.' Then she asked ‘Are you going to have a tribe of your own?' and he said, ‘We want to have kids someday.' She asked, ‘When would that be?' and he said, ‘When we're both ready.'” Sounds reasonable.

Leonelli's version is similar. She says she asked Pitt: “When do you think you'll start having children?” and he replied “Whenever it's right, I think we'll feel it.” That, she insists, is what she wrote in her article.

When the Onionskin called Marie Claire's Munich office, a helpful assistant promptly faxed us the interview [“Im Duett mit Brad”]. The editor was, alas, resolutely on holiday. But we can confirm that Herr Pitt says—in black and white and German—“ Nummer eins is schon unterwegs. Jetzt hoffen wir, dass alles gut geht ,” (Number one is on the way. Now we're just hoping that everything goes well.). The Onionskin sees two possible conclusions: either this is another manifestation of the when-all-else-fails-blame-the-translator ploy (ask any politician)… or there may be a job going for a good into-German translator (or editor?) in Munich.

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October 2001

Translation volunteers reach across borders

Sleeping sickness in Burundi, food security and armed conflict in Sudan, torture in Chechnya, and the plight of displaced people in Zaire are just a few of the harrowing subjects that translators tackle through Traducteurs Sans Frontières (TSF).

Based in Paris, this network of professional translators volunteers time and language skills to assist humanitarian organizations such as Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) and Amnesty International. As its name suggests, TSF is modeled on Médecins sans Frontières, founded in France. MSF delivers emergency medical assistance to populations in danger in more than 80 countries, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.

The TSF network was born of a chance meeting between an MSF representative and Lori Thicke, general manager of Paris-based translation agency Eurotext. “MSF had already given our company some paid assignments, but we admired their work so much that at a certain point we offered to waive our fee,” explains Thicke. “And when we thought about it, we were convinced that many translators, like the MSF's medical volunteers, would be prepared to make a contribution in kind to such a good cause.”

Her intuition was right: to date over 30 translators have answered the call, producing some 50,000 words a month.

The beneficiaries are delighted.

“Traducteurs sans Frontières is a huge help,” says Caroline Serraf, who is in charge of translations at Médecins sans Frontières. “Our budgets are tight and we are very strict about holding running costs to 5% of our FRF 500 million annual total. Every penny saved is used for projects in the field.” 85% of MSF funds come from private donations, with the balance provided by international donors.

Karen Tucker, a French to English translator based in Ohio, is one TSF volunteer. “I have enormous respect for humanitarian associations like Médecins sans Frontières,” she told the Onionskin. “And until TSF, I never realized that my translation skills could make a direct contribution to their work.” A former journalist, Tucker also enjoys tackling the international issues featured in her volunteer assignments.

Drawbacks? “Few volunteers are specialized enough to take on our very technical work, which is still done by volunteer doctors and engineers,” says Ms. Serraf. Timing can also be a problem, since volunteers, quite naturally, tend to check in only when their regular workload lightens. “We are an emergency aid organization, so our work is determined by crises,” she notes regretfully. Deadlines can be extremely tight: when Médecins sans Frontières called for parliamentary hearings after the fall of Srebrenica, where some 7,000 people were massacred, TSF volunteers translated 8,500 words of testimony from MSF personnel literally overnight. MSF was the only NGO present in the enclave at the time.

Editors are also needed, says Serraf, since translations provided by TSF are unedited. Language combinations depend on current events and crises, although MSF says that 80% of its work is French to English. Yet into-French translators are also required at present, along with Portuguese, Albanian and Romanian. For more information, contact .

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Refreshing reaction in Russia

For Russian consumers, Ikea's “Svalka” drinking glasses could easily have joined the list of product names that sound fine at home but do not travel well. The glasses are sold throughout Western Europe under the Svalka name, which means “refresh” in Swedish and… “landfill” or “dumpster” in Russian. Yet a quick check with Ikea Russia confirmed that the houseware giant's eagle-eyed local team nipped the problem in the bud: in November 1999, an in-house copywriter in Moscow transformed Svalka to a neutral Sval'k.

“We try to keep the names as close as possible to the Swedish original,” Ikea Russia's Irena Vanenkova told the Onionskin. “But where there are bad associations, we either change a vowel or remove, change or add a consonant.”

The more countries and language combinations a company trades in, the higher the risk of a linguistic stumble. Ikea has 159 stores in 29 countries representing 17 different languages. Packaging production is centralized, with the same designs used worldwide. Product names are entered into the corporate database long before sales start, which gives teams in each country plenty of time to discover unfortunate choices, says an Ikea International executive.

Insiders still recall “Prick by the meter!”, the bold banner that greeted Canadian consumers when Ikea opened its first store in that country. Prick was a polka-dot fabric, discontinued since.

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Linguists: Uncle Sam Wants You

“It is much easier to penetrate the Gambino crime family than the bin Laden crime family” said a senior US government official following the tragic events of September 11. By all accounts, an acute shortage of language skills is one reason.

According to the Washington Post, agents building cases against members of the Islamic group that planted a bomb under the World Trade Center in 1993 discovered elements of the plot in handwritten Arabic documents collected three years earlier in the Rabbi Meir Kahane murder case. These documents included photos and schematic drawings, but were not translated or analyzed, said the report.

The problem was acknowledged in March 2000, when then-FBI Director Louis J. Freeh included a request for $5 million for translation services in his presentation of the FBI's 2001 budget request to Congress. As Mr. Freeh stated at the time, “The FBI has not been able to translate all of the recorded audio conversations and documents it has obtained during investigations.” For some observers, that figure seemed a drop in the bucket compared to overall budget numbers: the Bureau's total 2001 request for direct funded resources was a whopping $3,280,749,000.

Yet FBI recruitment teams have long been exhibitors at the annual conference of the American Translators Association, apparently with little success. And Chinese>English translator James Honeychuck notes that the FBI has been actively recruiting both in-house and freelance translators throughout the eight years he has been in business in the Washington area.

That drive has now moved up several gears: on September 17, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller issued an appeal for assistance from Americans fluent in Arabic, Farsi and Pashto. The response, according to the Bureau, has been overwhelming. However, applicants must be screened for security clearance and trained before they become operational, and first reports indicate that many do not have the required proficiency.

Desperate as the need may be, there is simply no overnight solution. Yet as Peter Probst, a former terrorism expert for the Defense Department and the CIA says, “Wiretaps do you no good if you have no one who can translate, or can […] understand what they are hearing.”

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STC Translation Kit

The Society for Technical Communication counts 25,000 members—technical writers, editors, graphic designers, videographers, multimedia artists, Web and Intranet page information designers, translators and others whose work involves making technical information available to those who need it. Its special interest group (SIG) on international technical communication recently launched an online Translation Kit.

“The kit was started in response to the many inquiries the SIG receives relative to translation,” says Carol Luttrell. All inquiries on international technical communication received by the group are channeled to her, in her capacity as SIG manager. “The questions run the gamut,” she told the Onionskin. “If asked something I don't know, I find someone who can answer it, then ask that person to respond and copy me on the response to make sure the loop is closed.” Luttrell receives two to three questions a month. Since many cover the same ground, some basic guidelines seemed to be in order—whence the kit.

The project was launched in June 2000, with articles solicited through the group's newsletter. Membership manager Charlene Nagy coordinated contributions, which now include seven downloadable articles. Most are aimed at non-linguists or inexperienced translation buyers. Worth a look at

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British Airways: fit to be tongue-tied

“The British Airways air fleet would be utterly fitted until spring 2002” trumpets a promotional mailing sent to France-based members of BA's Executive Club program over the summer. The document hails a “revolutionary seat-bed [that] has been fitted on 19 routes to the USA, Asia and Africa”. Customers love the new seat, burbles the blurb. No doubt almost as much as the two readers who sent us the English-language text enjoyed the skewed prose: “Priceless idioms!” notes one. Contacted by the Onionskin, British Airways staff acknowledged that the text was not up to scratch, but appeared mystified as to its origins. Our own guess is machine translation or an over-confident non-native speaker of English—a reminder that self-proclaimed bilinguals are a risky solution when producing promotional or outbound materials.

It nonetheless seems strange that no British staff members vetted the text before it went to press. Maps accompanying the text are equally worrying. In an apparent meltdown of the entire Eastern Seaboard, New York lies 100 miles inland, Philadelphia has slid into North Carolina, Newark replaces Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. is somewhere between Tuscaloosa and the Mississippi delta. Here's hoping BA's pilots have better navigational aids.

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Relief for refugees?

“I'd accepted the job because I'd been told I wouldn't need to know anything complex or political,” said 22-year-old Alex Reynolds in a special report on refugees in Britain in The Observer (April 29, 2001). An anthropology student at Newcastle University who claims to speak "fairly fluent village Nepalese", Reynolds was recruited by Sakura Communications to interpret for Home Office asylum interviews.

Yet as a 17-year-old refugee explained for the third time how Nepalese police had tortured him, Mr. Reynolds bailed out. "This man was telling me his life depended on him being able to stay in Britain for reasons I couldn't understand," he said.

A Home Office official advised the young interpreter to paraphrase and simplify if necessary, noting that interviewees could always appeal a judgment if they disagreed with a transcription of the interview. Yet statistics are not encouraging: more than 70 per cent of asylum-seekers to the UK are refused entry, and while most appeal, the initial decisions are upheld 80 per cent of the time. The same report cites another student interpreter, recruited like Mr. Reynolds through a campus newspaper. Having spent all of one year in Nepal, Veronica Oakeshott was assigned to translate legally-binding Home Office statements into Nepalese for refugees to sign. She says she objected, was told to carry on, and resigned at the end of her first day.

The Observer claims its investigation revealed that the Home Office routinely employs untrained and inexperienced interpreters for asylum interviews, contrary to legislation. When we phoned, a Home Office representative said that procedures were in place to ensure that all interpreters received induction training and assessment. An independent audit committee had reported a decrease in complaints, he said.

For court interpreter Ellen Moerman, MITI, use of properly qualified interpreters is an obvious prerequisite. In addition, suggests Moerman, “A proper and complete record must be kept of what is said at all interviews—including the very first one— in both languages , thus preserving the evidence and protecting the rights of the asylum-seeker as well as the reputation of the interpreter.” At the Immigration Advisory Service, the largest UK charity giving free legal advice and representation services to immigrants and asylum-seekers, chief executive Keith Best decries the current situation. "It is scandalous that people who have claims under an international convention to which the UK is a signatory have hurdles thrown at them at every stage to keep the facts from being elicited," he told The Onionskin. Example? Asylum-seekers granted temporary admission are given a 19-page Statement of Evidence form that must be completed within ten working days. The form is in English. Yet since candidates are dispersed throughout the country, they are not certain to find qualified translators in their language combination locally, nor can they claim legal aid to help finance language assistance. Lobbying by IAS and other bodies has led the Home Office to issue instruction booklets in a selection of languages, which is surely a step in the right direction. Yet the IAS still receives "masses of complaints", says Mr. Best.

Sakura Communications declined to comment.

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Youth fights pot plot in Albania

In Albania, a 14-year-old was pressed into interpreting service in July in a case that saw four farmers thrown into jail for growing hemp with seeds provided by UK charity Partnership for Growth. Police claimed the plants were cannabis. The organization insisted they were industrial hemp, and had planned to help local farmers use their harvest to produce rugs and carpets.

When the police raided fields containing 400,000 plants in the town of Shkoder, charity representatives headed out to Tirana to clear up what spokesman Mike Tyler described to BBC reporters as a "tragic misunderstanding". Short on cash and time, they recruited local talent for their negotiations with police and authorities—14-year-old Bruno, whom Tyler notes is "a very bright lad who learned German and English entirely from watching television".

Young Bruno had an added incentive. His father was one of the imprisoned farmers. Yet negotiations foundered and the plants were ultimately destroyed by the police.

Tyler admitted in a telephone interview that a qualified adult interpreter would have lent his group's mission greater credibility and may well have speeded a settlement. Cost was the critical factor, he said: the charity's annual budget is only £500,000. (Cost of seeds, administration and imprisoned farmers' time? mused the Onionskin).

Happily, all charges were dropped on August 13. Partnership for Growth is actively engaged in a range of development projects in Eastern Europe, and would be delighted to hear from professional interpreters prepared to volunteer their services [ ].

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French bank victim of old school try

“The bank is also a major stone of a holding which activities are”, with its promise of linguistic wasteland ahead, seems unlikely to draw in many English-speaking readers, casual or otherwise. The phrase appears in a report summarizing financing options for urban renewal projects at France's Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations. The document was produced in October 2000 for distribution to a working group of European experts.

When the Onionskin called, CDC's Sylvie Harburger traced the flawed text to a student intern. Her team realized shortly before the conference that it lacked an English-language document. When a fellow banker flagged an under-utilized English-speaking intern in another department, they jumped at the chance. The deal was done, and the young man set to work. The result is distinctly odd, despite his best efforts.

Ms. Harburger, who is CDC's liaison officer for EU urban renewal projects, blames poor planning, not miserliness. (Budgets for the program total EUR 7.5 billion). And she assures us that CDC has mended its ways: her team now commissions translations directly from a professional.

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Pitching with polish—where does the buck stop ?

Quality is the translation industry's Holy Grail, a topic regularly addressed in electronic forums, conference presentations and specialist publications.

Not surprisingly, everyone is for it. And most claim to provide it—the Onionskin has yet to run across a translation vendor pitching its own work as fair-to-middling.

Yet quality in translation is also maddeningly difficult to pin down. In some countries, committees spend hours hammering out bullet-proof lists of conditions that, if respected, would guarantee a monolingual buyer the text they need. In theory. Other players insist that it is a judgment call—citing, if cornered, the US Supreme Court justice's definition of pornography ("I know it when I see it."). All of which begs the question of how a monolingual client can judge what it is getting when ordering work into a foreign language.

The Onionskin likes the “suitability for purpose” approach: a translation makes the quality grade when it achieves what it was commissioned to do. Yet even then, it is important that each party be perfectly transparent about where its responsibilities start and end.

A recent advertisement in two major newspapers highlights some of the difficulties involved. The Austrian Business Agency (ABA) is charged with attracting foreign direct investment to Austria—businesses that will set up operations locally, generating jobs and tax revenues. With Vienna advertising agency Schierholz Saxer, it produced a German-language text extolling the little-known charms and strengths of the Austrian business scene, then commissioned an English translation from a local translation agency.

The brief was clear: an advertising text for publication in major English-language newspapers. Schierholz Saxer (SSX) confirmed to the Onionskin that it ran the translation it purchased past a native English-speaker before going to press—an excellent reflex, especially since the individual, Clifford Stevens of Hauska & Partners, is himself a PR professional. Yet with deadlines looming, SSX integrated only minor grammar adjustments. The agency failed to take on board Mr. Stevens' suggestion that the text be shortened and reworked.

By all accounts, they should have. For the ad, which ran in both the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal on November 21, left the English businesspeople we talked to bemused. “It's not dreadful, but it is light-years from genuine advertising copy,” said one. “It's awkward. The German content is there, but it doesn't read well,” complained another.

Flowing it ain't. [“There's not a single Austrian brand of which it might be said that every child's familiar with it.” “Just to mention on the side; is it really possible to earn that much money by “Schuhplatteln”?”]. Nor have local references been tweaked for an international audience [All-Wheel? Sisi?…Schuhplatteln?]. Clearly, this is not international-caliber advertising copy.

But who is at fault?

At Creative Translation, the Vienna translation agency that provided the English text, Diane Feiner stands by the job as delivered, insisting that there is absolutely nothing—make that absolutely NOTHING—wrong with the sentences quoted above. Advertising materials are one of her company's specialties, says Feiner, and the translator who produced the text is a well-educated native speaker of UK English.

But she also insists that her company's brief is to please its clients. Which for the Onionskin is where the problem lies. Purchasers of translations, especially into English, often believe that their school or working knowledge of the language is sufficient for them to judge the quality of a text. In reality, few are able to assess written style and impact on target readers. The translation industry's persistent failure to educate consumers of its services means that many such buyers will be “satisfied” with very little indeed. Stylistic deficiencies are bad enough, says one observer. But shouldn't a creative translation specialist also advise clients on the viability of transplanting their content willy-nilly into the target language?

Mismatches like ABA's are all the more regrettable given the cost of advertising space. Its quarter-page ad in the Financial Times set it back £25,900, that in the Wall Street Journal over $32,000.

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