Post #8 — Meanwhile back in Hastings-on-Hudson

For their early March meeting, Ruckusmakers converged on a well-kept Hudson River village a short train ride from Manhattan, a 50’s kind of place. In the nicest possible way.

And as they made their way up Main Street from the railway station, they passed a number of attractive bilingual panels—part of a Museum in the Streets© project guiding visitors to local landmarks.

“Bilingual”? Readers, you can see where this is going.

Seth Godin emphasizes the importance of seeing—of taking things in and developing a vision—and today I’m interested in what happens when language barriers mean you don’t see. And a voice is diminished and possibly lost.

It works like this: when a pair of eyes confronts a text in an unknown language, the attached brain seems to figure out early on that the content is not for them, and helpfully shifts their gaze away, over to a more welcoming place. (For Westerners, this happens even faster if the text is in a non-Roman alphabet.) Foreign-language texts become invisible.

Which can be a good way to avoid information overload, but can backfire, too. Because the whole point is that someone, somewhere, should be reading that foreign-language text; that was why it was created it in the first place. If the translation doesn’t say or do what it was supposed to do, the originator has lost an opportunity to connect. And may even have offended.

Take the strings of striking Chinese characters featured on the cover of a science journal’s special report on China a few years back. Let’s make this look really Chinese was the angle. Designers working for the über-sober Max Planck Institute were convinced they were using a classical poem, but it was a flyer for a Macau brothel. Housewives moonlighting as strippers. No one on their team spoke Chinese, no one had “seen”. And so the journal went to press. A process problem.

In director Luc Besson’s 2014 film Lucy, one scene has Scarlett Johansson sitting against what appears to be a prison wall, threatened by tough Chinese gangsters—an impression heightened by bold Chinese characters on the wall. This is a scary, foreign place. Suspense—even terror—reigns, unless you read Chinese. The characters say “Keep hygienic” / “Scallop” / “Grape”/ “Tomato” / “Orange” / “Ginger”. (Dude, you want fried noodles with that?) How did this happen? Another process problem.

But let’s return to the banks of the Hudson.

The Hastings Historical Society is a group of dedicated, community-minded people who definitely care. But for their signs, they had no idea how to find a translator—a common dilemma for first-time buyers of translated texts. While brainstorming, someone suggested contacting a local school. To the layman, it sounded like a great idea (languages = learning = school = reading and writing) and a Spanish teacher from a middle school in the next town was brought on board.

Unfortunately the skills required for teaching a foreign language are not the same as those required for translating professional copy. And no revision stage was built in. So the panels’ Spanish texts, while not the history buff’s equivalent of hot young housewives or a take-away menu, are still an amateur performance. The impact of the very positive outreach-to-Spanish-visitors impulse has been diluted. Spelling and other mistakes say “we don’t really care about you.” Oh, and the physical signs, produced at a cost of $25,000, are extremely well-made and carry a 10-year guarantee, so won’t be corrected any time soon.

So again we have flawed translation resulting from a process problem, with more energy and attention devoted to producing the physical sign (post, panel, lamination) than its Spanish language content.

As with Post #7’s French entrepreneurs, the cynic might sneer. Does any of this matter? Hey, it’s only a bunch of signs in a village/the cover of a periodical/a scene in a movie.

Which is where the militant word geek responds, well, yes, it does matter. Because man-made barriers that detract from the effectiveness of work produced or commissioned by people who care needn’t be. Those people and those projects deserve better. Their ripple effect has been cut short.

The good news is that translation breakdowns are more often due to ignorance than to stupidity, ill will or avarice. After all, someone who doesn’t know but does care can be informed, can be convinced—and is more often than not eager to get it right once the process and investment is made clear.

So as the #RuckusMakersChallenge draws to a close, I would like to challenge linguist readers to a translator version.

It goes like this: choose yourself. (Seth’s input is the driver, after all.)

Decide that you can make a difference in the way your profession is perceived and the way you yourself work. Hone your skills, up your game and focus on clients who care; get on their radar screen by getting out into their world. Connect with serious, passionate customers—not off and on as the mood takes you, but regularly. Then, to really ramp things up, identify windows of opportunity: timing counts.

Serve these people well and they will embrace the “People like us do it like this” mantra.

Translation: We savvy [businesspeople/researchers/healthcare teams/investors/regional development authorities/museum curators/etc.] get our texts translated by skilled, specialized human translators who work in teams and know our business inside out.” Sub-text: use the self-proclaimed bilingual brother-in-law of your cousin to translate our marketing plan? C’mon, be serious! Rely on machine translation for our mission-critical documents? You must be kidding. Yes, of course those vendors make all sorts of claims; sure, they can sometimes do gist. But, hey, when your texts are really important to you, get yourself a professional translator. That’s how people like us do it.”

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