Category Archives: Cultural awareness

Cleveland could be a cosmopolitan city

I’m a Clevelander by adoption; I’m entering my 5th year as a resident in the area (west side of Cleveland proper) but I can’t yet feel the urban atmosphere as more than mere concrete bigness and hollowed-out glory that doesn’t seem to reach out and touch the world.

Cleveland and surrounding cities have many bright spots: worldclass museums and orchestras, as well as the famed Cleveland International Film Festival, now in its 39th anniversary. Several multinational companies, from Sherwin Williams to Lubrizol and Hyland Software, call the Greater Cleveland their home.

According to US Census 2010 figures, 12.1% of the population age 5 and older speaks a foreign language. Of that slice, 7.1% of adults 18 and older speak Spanish, 0.6% speak Arabic, 0.5% speak Chinese. Also, 0.9% speak a Slavic language (Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Ukranian and Russian). But Cleveland is not the only epicenter of foreign languages in Ohio. In recent years, the city of Dayton, OH, has become the home of 2,500 Aishka Turks, who speak Turkish.

ACS 2012 census reporter Cleveland OH (languages)

By most accounts, Cleveland is a multicultural hub, but you wouldn’t see it by reading the local newspapers or websites —unless you were specifically looking for a foreign-language website, that is. But Cleveland has a ways to go before being considered a truly dynamic cosmopolitan city.

Take exports, for example. Aside from some of the companies I just mentioned, I didn’t know about any local exporters until recently through an article published in Crain’s Cleveland Business (found here) in last June. The article, titled Companies have a world of options to enter export game, mentions several useful programs to help local companies export products, but fail to say anything about using foreign languages. Countries may have ports of call where you send your merchandise, and your company (if it is an exporter) may know all the forms to fill out to comply with the regulations of a foreign country, but a language is your portal to a foreign culture, which can come in handy to understand business transactions and practices in that faraway destination. Since you put so much stock on exporting and gaining new customers, thus improving your bottom line, shouldn’t you be paying attention to their language as a factor that can influence your earnings favorably?

Another area of potential robust growth is real estate. You would think that the saying “location, location, location” is only relevant to local clients or buyers, right? Not quite. In a July 18, 2014 article in the Mansion supplement of The Wall Street Journal, a foreign language can give real estate agents a competitive edge. For example, Nadia Rahmani, an agent with Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty in Chicago, is fluent in three foreign languages —French, Arabic and Spanish. In her estimate, 40% of her buyers in Chicago are international: “Even though they’re fluent in English, they’re more comfortable speaking in their native tongue.”

WSJ - Real-estate agents and different languages - 18 July 14

A similar circumstance is happening here, in the shadows: a real estate agent I know, Luba Kohut, speaks Ukranian. She told me that her Ukrainian has come in handy with some clients. But I wonder: where are the Ukrainian real estate brochures or websites? Are you listening, Howard Hanna? Imagine for a moment if real estate companies could market units in foreign languages, thus attracting the attention of foreign investors! Just look at what Dayton did.

Health care centers in America attract thousands of patients from all over the world. In our metro region, hospitals like Cleveland Clinic offer language assistance services by way of foreign language interpreters for international patients. However, how is a Brazilian patient supposed to know that she’s entitled to request a no-cost Portuguese interpreter? Even the otherwise informational page is —you guessed it— in English!

To recapitulate, Cleveland businesses, big and small, could learn a great deal about showing an international, cosmopolitan face to the world and to every visitor. A very good example is Lubrizol. If you go to the Lubrizol’s website, you are welcome by this splashscreen:

Lubrizol in 3 languages

Small businesses could do something similar, but COSE, the Council of Smaller Enterprises of which I was a member for close to 2 years, has no initiatives in that regard. Cleveland businesses need to adjust their attitude from a local mindset to a more worldwide one. Use foreign languages not just to network and find clients but also to show your sense of hospitality and humanism, which goes beyond language and cultural differences. And this attitude should not be an one-off event. I invite you to widen your vision to years, not just months, down the road. You don’t have to shed your unique city identity when you embrace a cosmopolitan attitude. If you agree, let your voice be heard at your local chamber of commerce or similar association.

But you could take direct action and put yourself on the map whenever there are international events in our city. Take the 2016 Republican National Convention that will attract thousands of press representatives from all over the world. If you play your language cards right, they might as well become your best brand ambassadors back to their home countries.

Cleveland and its metro area have some enviable advantages compared to other metro areas in the country, including reasonable property taxes, simplified ways to establish a corporation, low housing costs, lots of green spaces and the four seasons (even if we get snowed in once in a while). Don’t keep it to yourself, say it in a foreign language.

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Filed under Advertising, Brand awareness, Cleveland Metro, Cultural awareness, Public Relations

In search of the holy grail of non-human translation

In Slate, Jeremy Kingsley writes about Google Translate. The tagline reads It already speaks 57 languages as well as a 10-year-old. How good can it get? (Read the article here).

My answer: not that good. How can a 10-year-old be a good writer, unless he’s a prodigy? More to the point: you may be fluent in German, but that doesn’t mean you can write in German appropriately in a given situation, like an educated native would. Most proponents of machine translation (MT for short) are enamored with having software produce translations after learning foreign languages. Here’s the problem: translation has little to do with learning a foreign language, and a lot to do with the craft of writing, acquired after years and years of practice and error.

I was intrigued, however, by Mr. Kingsley’s article, to which I responded in the following fashion:

Mr. Kingsley is evidently enthusiastic about technology marvels that may or may not replace some activities of the human brain. I don’t blame him, he’s just a writer.

Even though the article brings together different views (Bello and Wittgenstein), it struggles to be neutral…and fails. There are so many aspects that pop up in a well-informed conversation about machine translation that my comments cannot possibly touch on all of them, but here’s my attempt:

a) Orality (the speech part of language) informs but does not shape all forms of written expression in a language.
b) Most languages have a written form, some never had one. Where would Google Translate (or MT) find the copious amounts of data to mine? Nowhere.
c) Human knowledge and activity show themselves in thousands of domains, not just EU documents, not just webpages. How many books are NOT in digital form? The Internet’s corpus is minuscule by comparison.
d) Different domains (law, financial prospects, discovery documents, material safety data sheets, voting instructions, and so on) have different registers, different formulas for expression. Some languages handle similar situations in different ways, with a different tone in writing form.

Translation is an act of written and visual creation. Before we get all enthused about how technology tools can “translate”, we should ask ourselves “can software write something cogently?” Or, “can software create?” If by creating we mean “doing something from scratch”, we already have robots that can perform such tasks. Obviously, there’s more to it than meets the eye.

To me, a created thing has to bear a meaning given by its creator. No, I am not talking about god or religion here. There’s meaning, intent, focus, tone, a sense of beauty or a tinge of ugliness, contradiction, coolness or fervor, a human imprint.

Of course, there are translation users who can’t be bothered with these disquisitions. As Mr. Kingsley said, their bar is low enough that they can achieve software-enabled translations to meet a need. Here’s a question: Who will bother to ask for input from the reader? Isn’t that the purpose of having a text translated?

There’s more. When you write, you decide what words to use based on a number of circumstances. Some words come to mind more easily than others, some phrases and references pop up more freshly or apt than others. In short, what you write is the sum of your decisions. What you translate is no different.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, Cultural awareness, Machine translation, Software-enabled translation, The craft of translation, Writing skills

Stow standard roller bags LENGTHWISE

I am writing from the Silicon Valley today. The mountain air, the wide lanes on 87 South…the outdated Continental terminal at San Jose International Airport.

I am an amateur photographer. Things, not people, inspire my shots. I recently took a picture inside the cabin of a plane before disembarking (sorry, I don’t use deplaning because I think it’s a stupid Americanism).

The object in question is an informative signage in overhead bins: Stow standard roller bags LENGTHWISE and its accompanying Spanish translation: “Guarde equipaje con ruedas A LO LARGO”.

Bilingual signage

Guardar equipaje con ruedas A LO LARGO

What’s wrong with this picture? First, we Spanish speakers will ask ourselves ¿a lo largo de qué? Part of the translation, a lo largo, is, therefore, incomplete because, as an adverbial phrase, it requires a complement. However, lengthwise, an adverb, has been correctly translated…if translation meant just swapping words. But as a proponent of the translation technique known as desverbalización (deverbalization), I have to look deeper for the meaning (or unidades de sentido).

Second, the English has been poorly conceived because the phrase is incomplete. The original meaning, judging from the image, is that carry-ons or roller luggage should be stowed so that the handle will face the bin door. In this meaning, the wheels of whatever luggage contraption you use to carry your belongings will face the back of the bin. So, why use lengthwise?

I am assuming that the writer of the English phrase was thinking of the length the wheels have to travel from the lip of the bin to the back, which is called depth in better written texts. The word length refers to distance. A better instruction would have been Stow standard roller bags with wheels facing back, which is short and to the point. Of course, there are other variations, such as Stow standard roller bags so that handle faces bin door, but limits of space in signage demand a crisper, briefer version.

If anything, this example shows translators (and translation managers, buyers, project managers and other interested parties) how important it is to attach a graphic or figure to illustrate the instruction for clarity. More often than not, the text in and of itself is incomplete or unclear without a graphic. In this particular case, the graphic informs and completes the meaning of the English phrase, and a watchful translator will take it into consideration.

In my upcoming presentation at the Boston ATA Conference in October, I plan on using this item to exemplify one of the best practices in writing technical texts in Spanish. Your comments are always welcome, in English or en español.

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Filed under Bilingual signage, Cultural awareness, Signage, Spanish technical writing, Syntax, Technical writing, Translation errors

Revolutionaries, not mujahedin

The Libya situation is far from resolved, with Gaddafi unwilling to step down and rebels entrenched in cities in Eastern Libya. Every newspaper and evening newscast shows this, nothing new seems to happen in this impasse. I tune it out.

Except for an intriguing word usage, not by some Western journalist, Pentagon or NATO official or even by a politician. In the March 21, 2011 issue of TIME Magazine, the article titled The War Between The Libyas ends with the following paragraph:

Wanis Kilani, an engineer, reflects on the word mujahedin. “We are mujahedin in Libya only,” he says. “We don’t have any interest outside Libya.” Then he pauses. “Actually, don’t use the word mujahedin. Use revolutionaries.”

Wikipedia offers a succinct and quite complete definition and usage of the term mujahideen. Given the bigotry-filled image of Muslims in the Western World, a wise correction of the word usage is recommended by an educated Libyan looking in, reaching into our imageworld full of twisted visuals about Islam, the Quran, Islamic militants, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the jumbled misunderstanding of these elements.

Please join me in using revolutionaries to refer to the courageous Libyans who are standing for their own freedom and against oppression. Let’s honor them by using the right word.

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Filed under Cultural awareness, Etymology, Politically correct

Ads that blithely ignore world outside of America

I am not a football fan, but I can recall a certain Groupon Super Bowl ad with Timothy Hutton in it. I like Mr. Hutton as an actor, but if the flurry of negative tweets is to be believed, the ad makes light reference to Tibet, which is a faux pas in advertising (or it should be). Click on the following image to read the article.

Super Bowl games are no longer viewed only in America. According to Initiative, a New York-based media research firm, the 2005 Super Bowl event attracted about 2 million viewers outside of the United States.

One of the most difficult things to translate or convey in another culture is humor and jokes. If you are a multinational corporation or a company that is trying to stretch your business horizons overseas, you cannot claim ignorance or innocence when your advertising is deemed unfunny, even offensive, in other countries, even in foreign enclaves within the United States.

Andrew Mason, Groupon’s founder, issued an apology and the ad was pulled afterwards. The Super Bowl championship is the biggest event in America, and advertising during the Super Bowl is the most expensive of the year. So, it was not a matter of cost, but of awareness.

The moral of the story seems to be this: don’t be penny wise and pound foolish, do your homework on the language, culture or country you are targeting your product or service.

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Filed under Advertising, Cultural awareness, Marketing, Public Relations