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Lost in translation

By Geoff Hart 

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2008. Lost in translation. Global Talk, newsletter of STC's International Technical Communication SIG, 28 March 2008. (

I first realized I had a problem with this language thing when I returned to my hometown of Montreal in 1993, after many years spent in the English monoculture of Ontario. Quebec is a primarily French province, and although there’s a large English community in Montreal, Montrealers tend to communicate in a tasty mixture of French and English known as franglais (from francais for French and anglais for English). The local dialect of colloquial French is known as joual—a mispronunciation of cheval, which means horse (i.e., the worker’s language). You’ll have to hold most of a bagel (another Montreal specialty) in your mouth as you pronounce cheval to see how it transforms into joual. Add to this the disconcerting tendency of Montrealers to switch promiscuously between English, French, franglais, and joual at the drop of a preposition, depending on which idiom is most suitable at any given moment, and you can imagine my linguistic disorientation.

Just when I was beginning to cope, I took on the role of technical writer for my employer and had to learn to speak fluent Geek—in a mixture of the abovementioned languages, of course. My favorite “lost in translation” anecdote is about the time I had to explain to a French developer why my loss of an entire morning’s work qualified as a bug in his software; to him, a bug was a calculation error. It took some ingenuity and judicious use of my then-nascent intercultural skills to express the real problem in a way that made sense to him.

In 2002, I traveled China as one member of a delegation specifically setting out to engage in jiao liu (I’ll spare you the complexities of the pinyin accents that represent tones)—an exchange of ideas. Having decided at the last possible minute to participate, and now vastly overconfident in my linguistic skills after nearly a decade back in the linguistic melée that is Quebec, I engaged in a crash course to learn enough Chinese to be passably polite to my hosts. I’d reckoned without the difficulty of learning a tonal language after having spent some 40 years as a largely tone-deaf anglophone. It was a delight to watch the smiles of pleasure (or possibly polite and diplomatic amusement) on the faces of my hosts when I greeted them and introduced myself in fluent Chinese—and their outright incomprehension when, having now proven that I was a fluent speaker of Mandarin, I told them that wo bu shuo Zhongwen (”I really don’t speak Chinese—I’m just a very polite trained parrot”). I never did master how to ask for tea: every time I asked for cha, the waitress handed me a fork (also a cha, but with different tonality). Possibly it was just lack of motivation, since I quickly mastered how to request more piejou (beer). I look forward with mingled delight and dread to my proposed trip to India this December; though I hope to become equally polite in Hindi, I fear that I’ll remain entirely incomprehensible in the other 14+ regional Indian languages.

Then there’s that whole embarrassing Martian versus Venusian translation, as explained in John Gray’s Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. After 40 years of practice, I’m still working on it, and hope to someday communicate almost as well as I do in English. There are no guarantees in life, of course, but I have some hope of success. After all, I earn my living as an editor and translator, so evidence notwithstanding, I have some pretensions of skill with words. On the other hand…. Mars? Venus? That whole War of the Worlds thing is awfully intimidating, and I can’t just blame Spielberg. 

After 20 years as an editor, I’m convinced that I’m not alone in these problems. If you learn nothing else along the way, editing quickly teaches you how difficult it is to translate concepts that originate in the squishy stuff that lies between an author’s ears into words that will mostly convey the same meaning when transferred into the very different squishy stuff between the reader’s ears. So I figure, based on this evidence, we should relax and not worry about internationalization, localization, and translation. It’s clear to me that the real problem is communication per se. Lick that problem and the rest will fall neatly into place. In the meantime, we can reconcile ourselves that information is always and inevitably lost in translation. What counts is the effort we make to minimize that loss.

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