No. 2, Volume 1 
October 1997

Chris Durban

Chris Durban is a freelance translator specializing in finance and capital markets. Based in Paris, she was a staff translator with EFSA, the research division of Banque de l'Union Européenne from 1973 to 1987, and has organized five training days for financial translators in conjunction with the Paris Bourse.
  Since February 1996, she has written a client-education column for the ITI Bulletin (UK) entitled The Onionskin. This features real-life translation stories, culled from the business press, personal observation and items submitted by readers.

Chris can be reached at

(All leads gratefully accepted.)

 Jul 97 Issue
From the Editor/Webmaster
You Asked for It
by Gabe Bokor
Translator Profiles
Take care of the sense...
by Paul Danaher
In Memoriam: Dr. Deanna L. Hammond
by Jane M. Zorrilla
Legal Translation Workshop
Teaching German-English Legal Translation
by Margaret Marks
Dictator v. Dictator
First Impressions of ViaVoice from IBM
by Roger Fletcher
  NaturallySpeaking from Dragon Systems
by William J. Grimes
Science & Technology
A Translator’s Guide to Organic Chemical Nomenclature IX
by Chester E. Claff, Jr., Ph.D.
Banking and Finance
The Language of Inflation
by Danilo Nogueira
Translation in the News
The Onionskin
by Chris Durban
Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
 Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Events
Letters to the Editor
Call for Papers
Translation Journal
Translation in the News 
The Onionskin
Promoting Good Translation Practice

by Chris Durban

Introduction: Why The Onionskin?

I’m tired of translators moaning about how stupid/naive/ill-informed clients are, all in the privacy of their (the translators’) own homes/meetings/gatherings. And I am convinced that endlessly recycled anecdotal tales of “messes that bad translations/poor cross-cultural renderings can get you into” are getting the profession no-where—in their current form.
   One reason is that these anecdotes (often apocryphal) are usually recycled back to translators like ourselves, rather than being repackaged and brought to the attention of the businesses that use translation services.
   Examples also tend to be too general. As such, they pose no threat to offenders (companies and translators alike), who will never have to shoulder responsibility for the ridicule their unprofessional output generates.
   Finally, the focus of many examples is a concept/graphic flaw. One reason is that the graphic component makes them accessible to a wider audience—and no one would deny that concepts/visuals are a serious problem in cross-cultural communications. But this also allows anecdotes to sidestep the “quality/content of text” issue entirely.
   Perhaps this is natural. After all, the group whose awareness we are trying to raise consists of businesspeople, who often do not speak or read the language their texts are being translated into (and in any case not well enough to pick up on the style problems or silly bits that bad translation leads to). It may well be very difficult to give them a feel for the full impact of mistakes made in their name if we stick to words alone. Yet is it inevitable? I think not.
   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 (and in April 1997, the Financial Times did mention one in an article on ITI). The column appears in the bi-monthly ITI Bulletin, published in London (for information on subscriptions, contact editor Antonio Aparicio at 101470,

And the Name?

The name The Onionskin was supplied by a US friend who works in advertising. According to him, it is a standard term for 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 day—or 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.

Air France “hub” campaign leaves some readers puzzled

Industry sources indicate that Air France ran one of the largest “international business” advertising campaigns originating in France in 1996, including ten full-page ads in the Financial Times alone. At a hefty £40,000 per page, that made a tidy sum.
   Yet as translators and some media specialists were quick to note, both slogans and body copy for the English-language version of the “hub” campaign were distinctly odd, bordering in some cases on the ungrammatical.
   “If you wish to slow down the effects of time, it is certainly not to waste any when you are traveling” read one slogan, touching off a lively debate on FLEFO, the translators’ forum on Compuserve. The accompanying visual featured jars of skin cream.
   Significantly, many French participants had no problem with the text, presumably because they were back-translating into their native French, in which the campaign was originally written.
   Native English-speakers were far more critical, noting that the translation, while not grammatically incorrect, was awkward at best. “Each of the words is definitely English. The slogan is definitely nonsense,” commented Richard Weltz of Spectrum Multilanguage Communications in New York.
   The controversy underscored the dilemma that faces clients ordering work into a language other than their own. While subject-matter specialists can provide useful input on terminology, “it is extraordinarily difficult for end-users who are not native speakers to judge the quality of the text they are getting,” noted one industry observer.
   As translators know, this can lead clients to prefer a “reassuring” but bumpy rendering that respects their own language’s syntax at the expense of style—and thus impact—in the target language.
   The Air France communications department confirmed to The Onionskin that the campaign was the work of advertising agency Euro-RSCG, and that English texts had been prepared by external translators working in France. Agency fees in France are commonly 15% of the space buy, and the translators were also “well paid,” according to Air France.
   The airline had received no negative feedback on its advertisements until The Onionskin called, and seemed genuinely surprised that its texts might be immediately identifiable as translations. According to a Euro-RSCG representative, the campaign had been rated a success; Air France sales agents abroad were pleased and, he noted, “the planes are full.”
   Reports of commercial success are a hard argument to beat. But linguists and some language-sensitive observers were unconvinced. “The ad title—‘Si vous souhaitez ralentir les effets du temps, ce n’est pas pour en perdre quand vous voyagez.’—works fine in French,” commented Arthur Goodfriend, a US advertising professional working in France. “Unfortunately, good copywriting in one language doesn’t always translate naturally into an equivalent register in another. This is particularly true of advertising.” According to Goodfriend, Air France’s agency may have required the translators to stay too close to the original French copy, or the translator may have failed to offer creative alternatives that might have solved some of the problems.
   At any rate, the “hub” texts received less media coverage than an Air France effort several years back, which sought—in a fiercely competitive industry—to promote a special bring-along-the-spouse offer under the extraordinary slogan: “Air France Wants You to Fly United.”

Language error cited in Indian air disaster

Indian officials claimed that the November crash of a Saudi Boeing 747 and a Kazakh Ilysuhin Il-76 some 25 miles from Delhi occurred when one of the flight crews misunderstood air traffic control orders in English. The accident was the world’s worst mid-air crash, killing more than 350 people.
   Officials said they had complained repeatedly about the problem to civil aviation authorities, citing airlines from the former Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Khirgistan. The poor language skills of Kazakh pilots was acknowledged by a senior official at Air Kazakhstan, who noted that many had not been called upon to speak English while the Soviet Union existed.
   The accident was widely reported in the world press, including the role allegedly played by language problems. Loss of life will do that. One challenge facing translators and their professional associations is to bring the “language counts” message home to translation users in less tragic circumstances as well.

Viennese ad copy waltzes past London office

“You need someone who acts as custodian for you?” sounds more like an opening gambit from a suspicious-looking individual with dubious offerings in a railway station than a pitch from one of Austria’s top-rated custodian banks. Yet until February this year Vienna-based GiroCredit had been promoting its securities custody services to investors in ads with precisely this heading. Body copy was equally unwieldy, a compilation of industry jargon and stilted translation by a writer who, while perhaps a subject-matter specialist, was obviously a non-native speaker of English.
   The ads appeared regularly in banking industry glossies including Institutional Investor and Global Investor, where rate cards show space costs from £3,450 to £14,050 per half-page in basic black and white. The Onionskin’s correspondent spotted it in Austrian Business, a US publication. GiroCredit’s dilemma underscores yet again the problem facing companies of any nationality that set out to produce texts in a foreign language. Style is notoriously difficult to judge, even by native speakers, and the problem is compounded when texts are adapted into another language for an international or country-specific audience.
   Karl Plischke, the GiroCredit executive contact named in the advertisement, had received no feedback on the ad until The Onionskin phoned. “It’s been running for several years” he noted, “at least since I joined the firm in 1991.” A native German speaker, Mr. Plischke had suspected that the ad was “not quite right” but had not had the time or opportunity to follow the matter up. To the bank’s credit, information was clear enough to allow interested parties to phone for more details.
   Yet—proof that image-conscious companies care about what they say and how they say it?—Mr. Plischke did pass the word on to Gesco, the company that handles GiroCredit’s advertising. Ten days later The Onionskin received a new, far smoother text and an illuminating comment: “The funny thing is, we have a branch bank in London with an almost 100% British team, and always let these people check [texts] before we go to print. They, the native speakers, have up until now been happy with our ads.”
   The run-it-past-our-foreign-office reflex is an excellent one, but as GiroCredit’s experience shows, it may not be enough. Individuals asked to vet texts must not only be native speakers, but also language-sensitive and thoroughly familiar with the subject. They need a clear brief, too—what is the text supposed to achieve with readers? where will it appear?—and must be allowed time for a full check. Finally, it must be impressed on them that head office welcomes criticism; that, in fact, is the whole point of the exercise. Clearly, this translation business is more complicated—and frustrating—than it looks at first sight.

French language rulings postponed; new cases filed

Feisty Défense de la langue française, one of the private-sector associations set up to ensure compliance with France’s “Loi Toubon,” was only slightly put out when court rulings on cases it had brought against the Body Shop, Interdiscount and Georgia Tech Lorraine—initially announced for February 24—were postponed until April (see our February report).
   “This is a minor setback,” director Marcel Déchamps told The Onionskin. The courts had questioned his association’s right to file proceedings against offenders, yet according to Déchamps, the Justice Ministry has already confirmed that Défense de la langue française is entitled to do so. In the meantime, the association has filed two more suits: one against highway operator Cofiroute and the other against three Tex-Mex restaurants. Cofiroute is accused of infringing the law by displaying only French and English-language signs for motorists on the highways it operates. Examples cited include notices at toll stations. One little-known stipulation of the “circulaire du 19 mars 1996,” setting out how various provisions of the Loi Toubon are to be applied, is that signs displayed in public by public authorities or by private companies with a public duty must, if translated, appear in at least two languages other than French. The aim is clearly to promote multilingualism and prevent English from swamping other foreign languages.
   The Tex-Mex establishments—Indiana, Sixties and Mustang Café—are accused of displaying outdoor signs in English only (“Open 10.00 a.m. to midnight”). Rulings in these cases and the original three are now slated for April 28.

Latinos lament language lapse in New Jersey

Spanish-speaking community groups in New Jersey were up in arms at a letter explaining new welfare rules to recipients in early February. The incident arose from the state Human Services agency’s apparent failure to observe the most basic translation policy guidelines.
   Critics said the letter, dated January 28, was written in grammatically incorrect Spanish, with errors in virtually every sentence. According to the Newark Star Ledger (6 February 1997), it “created confusion among recipients already having trouble understanding the tougher new rules, some of which took effect Feb. 1.”
   Parts of the missive bordered on the comical, including a warning that parole violators would be kicked off welfare: in the Spanish version, parole violator was rendered word-for-word as “violador bajo palabra” or “rapist under oath.” According to press sources, it had cost the agency $18,000 to send letters to the 100,000 households on public assistance. Acknowledging an “inexcusable error,” Human Services Commissioner William Waldman announced that an apology would be included in a corrected version of the faulty Spanish-language letter.
   Signs that trouble was brewing were apparent well before the incident hit the press: the wording of the original letter is said to have undergone multiple revisions and “tinkering” from a host of contributors. Last-minute changes were made, and there was a rush to get the document out as the new provisions took effect.
   The text was translated by in-house staff, triggering calls from some Latino community leaders for privatization of translation services. But for Walter Bacak, executive director of the American Translators Association, the incident was another reminder of the importance of quality assurance procedures. “These apply regardless of the service provider: independent contractor [freelance], agency or in-house,” Bacak told The Onionskin. “There’s no getting around it: careful checking —that ‘second (or third) set of eyes’—is essential.”

Birth of new bank: It’s a bouncing blunder

Serious money was spent on an advertising campaign to alert businesspeople to the creation of a new European banking group in mid-December. The space buy included a double-page color spread in the Financial Times costing newcomer Dexia—“the fruit of the pooling of the values, skills and financial means of two credit institutions [Credit Local de France and Credit Communal de Belgique]”— some £88,000. A three-page color spread in the Economist bumped that up by at least £68,400.
   Readers were offered a business profile in ponderous prose, including “The European banking group, the leader in financing public services, has been born.”
   For observers in the language industry, the issue was once again text bordering on the ungrammatical, awkward enough to be immediately recognizable as a translation.
   So what went wrong this time?
   Tight deadlines and disregard for good translation practices—two of The Onionskin’s bugbears—appear to be the culprits.
   French advertising agency Alice confirmed that time was extremely short and that several contributors were involved, while Elita, the Paris-based translation agency responsible for the initial English, told The Onionskin they had not seen the final version.
   Acknowledging that client education is sorely needed in the translation industry, Elita translation manager M. Tholy regretted that the customer had not resubmitted altered texts for a final opinion before going to press. “When we have no control over the final stage, there is little we can do to guarantee quality,” he said.
   At Dexia, the corporate communications department was adamant that checking procedures had been followed; as they explained it, many of the infelicitous changes had come from the bank’s overseas offices and partners. When pressed, a spokesperson admitted that some of these units were not staffed by native English speakers.
   Finger-pointing aside, and as all professional translators know, texts ultimately stand or fall on their own merits. In this respect, the “Dexia has been born” campaign was a discouraging reminder of how far client education has to go. But The Onionskin was heartened by an institutional brochure in the next day’s post, which set out Dexia’s origins and priorities in far more polished English. As hard-core campaigners for signed translations—in many cases, the best possible guarantee an end-user can have that someone is prepared to put their reputation on the line—we were delighted to note the translator’s name in large type at the back.
   Surely there is a moral to the story in there somewhere.

Web Site Wonder: Whodunnit?

“There is absolutly no point to jungle with quality, neither with expiry date or other bad ways to discredit our compagny” claims Interface Pharmaceuticals, a French exporter based in Frethun on the Channel coast. When the company’s web site was flagged by a US member of FLEFO, the foreign language forum on Compuserve, suggestions as to how the muddled text had been generated flew fast and furious. MT (machine translation) was fingered briefly, until US consultant L. Chris Miller reminded participants that computer programs have yet to produce inconsistent spelling—one of the many flaws visible on site.
   A call to the telephone number listed for Interface bagged contradictory statements. “The text was created by an Englishman, born in England!” insisted our first contact, who nonetheless instructed us to phone back the next week for full details. When Interface’s M. Fournier was finally tracked down, he owned up: the site had been created by students at a local business school. Ever eager to educate the blissfully unaware—or at the very least collect details on how and why a translation project went off the tracks—The Onionskin phoned likely schools in the Pas-de-Calais region, but failed to locate the offenders.
   The conclusion must surely be that even at cut-rate student prices, jungling with quality is a dangerous thing for a company with international ambitions.

(above texts published in ITI Bulletin in March 1997)

These articles may be freely reproduced as long as the ITI Bulletin and this Journal are given proper credit.

  © Copyright Gabe Bokor 1997
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Updated 09/22/97