The idea behind The Onionskin is to produce some up-to-date case studies in an easy-to-recycle format to get the good translation practice message across. Ideally, items will at some point get picked up by the general/business press and be recycled out to the world at large. The column appears in the bi-monthly ITI Bulletin, published in London (for information on subscriptions, contact editor Antonio Aparicio at 101470,firstname.lastname@example.org).
Language loophole gets Hong Kong fishmonger off the hook
The name was supplied by a US friend who works in advertising. According to him, an onionskin is a one-page throw-away newsletter, often in a specialist area or industry. By issuing short, punchy items at regular intervals, the publishers establish themselves as an industry reference and win a following with professionals as well as journalists, who then recycle the items out into the world.
Needless to say, the aim is not to reinforce the aren't foreigners peculiar/quaint? attitude that often seeps through in current (rare) press coverage of translation errors. Instead, we want to catch a few big (and small) players in international business out. With, if possible, a happy end as expert translator input saves the dayor at least keeps the offender from repeating the offence. Even better, of course, is to congratulate some business that has really got its translation act together. Believe it or not, this does happen.
The legal dilemma facing many bi- and multilingual communities was underscored in October 1996, when Mrs Tam Yuk-ha, a Hong Kong fishmonger, was found guilty in English but innocent in Chinese.
According to the Financial Times (2 November 1996), Mrs Tam was initially fined HK$3,000 (US$390) for breaching municipal laws by setting up tables outside her shop, only to be acquitted on appeal, with a high court judge citing differences in the English and Chinese versions of the law.
The case illustrates the pitfallsand loopholesthat can appear when large volumes of text are translated for very tight deadlines.
In Hong Kong, some 20,000 pages of legislation had to be translated before Julys transfer to Chinese sovereignty; the Legislative Council, the territorys legislature, has passed laws in Chinese and English since 1989. As described in the Financial Times, translations are first prepared by the governments legal department, then vetted by the Bilingual Laws Advisory Committee, a body of lawyers, linguists, legal academics and members of the Legislative Council. Only then are texts approved by the government.
In Mrs Tams case, the discrepancy concerned a passage in one version stating that no alteration or addition which would result in a material deviation could be undertaken concerning the shop, while the other appeared to refer to physical alterations to the premises. Result: outside tables were possible in Chinese, but not in English.
For Mrs. Margaret Ng, chairman of Legcos justice and legal services panel, it all boiled down to tight deadlines: The basis of the problem is the ambition to translate all the legislation within a very few years. It is being done too quickly, so you cant expect to meet the right standards.
BTA (Book Translators with Attitude)
Not many authors are translated more than once, so how they are translated matters wrote Steve Cox in The Bookseller (26 January 1996).
Mr. Coxs essay, entitled Why its time for the translating worm to turn, argued convincingly that if a translated book does well, the person responsible for the translation deserves to share in a success that she or he could have undermined by taking less time, listening less closely, or just not writing well enough.
He reminded critics and publisherssome of whom are still slack-jawed at the idea of paying translators royalties, although the concept is now gaining groundthat at the very least, translators names should appear both in books translated and in reviews. This is not always the case.
Coxs energetic call for literary translators to shed their traditional humility has not fallen entirely on deaf ears: the Literary Commission of FIT, the international federation of translators, chaired by Dr. Peter Bush MITI, organized a significant FIT presence at the 1997 Frankfurt Book Fairone of the first times translation was so visible at this major industry event.
Not that initiatives have been altogether lacking: already in 1996, as the Frankfurt Book Fair drew literary lights from around the world, the Frankfurter Rundschau reported that a group of book translators had mounted the barricades.
In an open letter of protest, the group136 in all, including such prominent names as Burkhart Kroeber, the German translator of Umberto Ecos worksstated they would no longer accept work from publishers Piper (Munich), Suhrkamp (Frankfurt) and Wagenbach (Berlin).
According to the signatories, all three publishing houses refused to recognize the standard translation contract negotiated by the publishers association and the German writers union, and regularly pay 20% less than rates agreed in collective bargaining. To add insult to injury, and in violation of industry practices, publishers named in the letter are said to deduct cost of revision from translators pay.
As one industry observer notes, pay levels in literary translation are already low enough to put many full-time practitioners in the poorer than dirt poor category. An even grimmer assessment came from a spokesman for the translators quoted on Deutschlandfunk Radio, who commented that with pre-tax income averaging just over DM 2,000 (£ 800) a month, the literary translator is in danger of becoming extinct altogether.
Yet if literary translators do indeed become less humble, perhaps publishers and literary editorswho lean so heavily on the expertise and literary conscience of translators in the words of Mr. Coxwill finally acknowledge their debt.
UK exporters: Good News/Bad News Dept.
In an EU-funded survey of exporters in northern England conducted in July 1996, a substantial 49 per cent of respondents claimed to have experienced language barriers. As reported in the Financial Times (Breaking the language barrier 10/10/96), the same survey indicated that only 13 per cent of the companies had devised a language strategy to address the issue. Yet 83% of companies surveyed nonetheless used translators.
Good news for translators with entrepreneurial flair, keen to pitch the cross-cultural communications skills they have to offer, said the optimist; a sad comment on the hit-and-miss language skills being marketed as translation by others, replied the pessimist. Incomplete data, hedged the prudent reader.
The article cites other studies showing a link between language skills and company sizecompanies with fewer than 250 employees appear to suffer most, while companies less than five years old with young managing directors are more likely to employ linguists. It goes on to describe assistance available to smaller companies in the UK, noting in particular the Languages in Export Advisory Scheme (Lexas), under which businesses with fewer than 250 employees can apply for a subsidy to finance on-site language consultancy advice (information from: Lexas +44 (0) 1203 694554.)
Chinese investors left out in the cold in Sweden
By the time Swedens Serious Economic Crimes Squad, tax authorities, and financial regulators placed Fairbank under scrutiny in December 1996, the Stockholm-based traders foreign exchange dealings had already lost investors millions of kronor.
Like Pagoda, which operated a similar scheme in Britain and was investigated by the UKs Serious Fraud Office for alleged misuse of $7.5 million of investors money, Fairbank had targeted ethnic Chinesein its case, the 20,000-strong community living in Sweden.
Since few victims have complained publicly, details are sparse. Some may have wanted to avoid drawing the attention of Swedish tax authorities to undeclared income, while others are said to have been illegal aliens. But given investors generally limited skills in Swedish, language was most definitely a factor at several levels.
Entry-level traders were recruited through Chinese-language advertisements in Dagens Nyheter, Swedens largest daily newspaper. After a crash course in the short-term rolling spot foreign exchange market, they were then set loose on family, friends and other potential investors.
As noted in the Financial Times (6 December 1996), the company spared no effort to win the trust of Chinese-speaking customers: the Chinese characters for Fairbank, embossed in gold on the front of its English-language sales brochure, are zhong yin, which could be taken to mean zhongguo yinhang or Bank of China.
While acknowledging that four-character phrases in Chinese are commonly abbreviated by using the first and third characters, UK-based Roger Fletcher, MITI, commented: zhong yin, is in no way either a translation or transliteration of Fairbank. The two characters, which could very easily be taken for Bank of China, mean middle or Chinese and silvermaking their link to Fairbank and its activities even more tenuous.
French association takes language offenders to court
In January 1997 Défense de la langue française announced it had lodged complaints against three offenders for non-compliance with the Loi Toubon, which requires instructions, lists of ingredients and other details to appear in French on all products sold in France. The private-sector association was set up to monitor application of the law and has been one of the most aggressive in taking action on infringements.
Georgia Tech Lorraine, which offers courses in English, was cited for failing to translate English-language pages on its Internet server in eastern France, while retailer Interdiscount was attacked for selling childrens video games in which on-screen instructions (insert coin/play again) appear in English only. Body Shop had once again failed to ensure that the skin and bodycare products sold through its Chambery outlet were properly labelled, contrary to undertakings given when it became the first company to be fined for breach of the Loi Toubon in January 1996 (Guillotine falls on Body Shop, Onionskin, April 1996).
Georgia Tech claimed that its site was not commercial and had been set up solely to provide information to students who were required to understand English to take its courses. It also cited French corporationsincluding State-owned Bullthat display English-only pages on their sites in France. La Défense de la langue française responded that the institutions site was indeed an advertisement, since it featured prices as well as course information, and implied that other all-English sites might be next on its list. In a statement to the press, The Body Shop International plc acknowledged that mistakes had been made, but indicated that its head franchisee and sub-franchisee in France were responsible for the oversights. Corrective measures were being taken, it announced.
When the Onionskin contacted the Association pour la défense de la langue française, administrator Marceau Déchamps indicated that the group was stepping up its efforts to remind entities based in France of their legal obligations. Staffed solely by volunteers, his association has a limited budget but plans further court challenges in the near future. To bring their message home, they are focusing on strategically important cases, e.g., Body Shops recidivism, and the all-important Net case. Déchamps insisted that the association was not anti-English but pro-French, emphasizing we are interested primarily in the written word.
Court rulings in all three cases are scheduled for February 24.
(above texts published in ITI Bulletin, Jan. 1997).
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