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You Can Help: Public Relations for Translators
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You Can Help: Public Relations for Translators

By Chris Durban

Adapted from a posting on CompuServe's foreign language forum, FLEFO, February 6, 1998

My column called the Onionskin started because I got irritated at the number of apocryphal stories floating around in the general/business press ("Nova," et al.)-endlessly recycled by largely monolingual journalists. Those accounts, along with "silly menus seen while on vacation in XYZ" and the occasional earnest report on "Translation: A Promising Career" in women's magazines seemed at one point to just about cover the ground for press reports mentioning translation and interpreting. Pathetic.

At the same time, as we see all the time here on FLEFO, there are any number of fascinating stories of how translation buyers have made stupid decisions, screwed up product launches, lost money, etc. But-and this is important-most of the time these stories are recycled among the likes of us. The penny rarely drops for our clients, because they never hear these "real" stories, at least not in a form they can relate to. For one thing, the punch line or source tidbit is usually in a foreign language, which means monolingual folks don't "get it" (although they may pretend they do). For another, not too many translators are willing to name names and quote figures when their own clients have been caught out (and rightly so). For the business press to get interested, you've got to do that.

So around and around we go: translators in one corner ranting and raving (occasionally chortling; we are not entirely humorless after all!), clients or potential clients in the other, forever making poor, misinformed decisions.

This is unsatisfactory, right? Yet how to change it? As several translators have pointed out, lecturing clients is a non-starter. But reformulating the stories that we translators all hear about or have experienced first hand, taking these one step behind the punchline to examine why the client messed up in the first place, and offering practical suggestions in a form that is understandable for non-linguists is far more promising.

That, anyway, was the initial idea. That the Onionskin runs in a linguists' magazine is not ideal, since the "good practice message" in each item (e.g., translators need background information, time to do the job properly; should ideally be native speakers; must reread proofs before these go to press, etc.) should come as no surprise to professional translators. (On the other hand, the magazine in question, ITI Bulletin [Institute of Translating and Interpreting of Great Britain] being a well-designed, generally pretty interesting one is a plus).

But the aim is that these items be recycled out into the "real" world. And that is what will happen this year. Where? How? Read on.

A regular column on this subject in a daily newspaper is unlikely to fly-too specialized. But surely translation could qualify for an occasional mention? Not least because language is of interest to a lot of people; you can pull in readers far more readily than for an arcane scientific or technical subject, for example. And the general press does occasionally latch onto an item: One of the first Onionskin stories came when the Nouvel Economiste criticized an into-English translation of a speech made by Jacques Chirac at a G7 meeting, likening it to a school-lesson translation (it was). When bad translations get fingered in the press and those who commissioned them get egg on their faces, we are headed in the right direction. And when good translations and those who produce/order them get coverage, then we are really getting somewhere.

Here's what I want. Practical stuff. Now.

  1. Translators working into other languages (than English, that is) prepared to take Onionskin articles and translate them for "diffusion" to the press in those languages, or to write up similar accounts. Volunteers? Please contact me directly.

  2. Names and email addresses of journalists "anywhere" who have written about language-related subjects, to be put on our press list for advance copies of the Onionskin. Got any? Send 'em to me. Please.

  3. Leads for new stories. "Case study" type material including names and phone numbers so I can contact the "protagonists" directly. It is amazing how cooperative people can be when a journalist calls for a story. Send these to me, please.

Basic philosophy: If more end users of translation know about how to get a good foreign-language text, they will adopt policies more likely to do so. "Our" work will become easier (in one way), more challenging (in another) and far more enjoyable in any case. And of course more lucrative.

Write to Chris Durban at with your contributions.

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