Category Archives: Syntax

Syntax issues in translation

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 The mountain air, the wide lanes on 87 South…the outdated Continental terminal at San Jose International Airport.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

Give feedback to your vendors

I just received an email from a very powerful organization. We were in interviews towards an in-house position in this organization. As part of the interviewing process, I was sent proofreading and writing tests to assess my skills. To their credit, the tests were well designed. Some of the paragraphs contained errors on purpose to make detection difficult unless you spent time reading it twice or even 3 times. An excellent exercise.

But this organization failed miserably when it came to providing feedback. In their formal email, they indicated that I did not qualify for the position because a great deal of linguistic and grammar acumen are required for it. No details, no examples, just a blanket statement, which I found troubling and telling.

In the everyday discussions about QA that many translation bureaus and translation vendors have, feedback is key to secure good assets and nurture good relationships for the long haul.

On another occasion, many years ago, I applied for a position at a well-known multinational from Europe. The translation test was economics. After I sent in my test, I received a terse explanation that it hadn’t passed because I did not know some of the industry terms. Not a word about writing style, grammar or accuracy.

If you provide feedback to your translation vendor or to a candidate, be specific. Better yet, agree beforehand on what constitutes a major or unacceptable error and how many errors are allowed. Do not assume. Spanish is spoken and written in more than 20 countries, and some syntax and phrase variations are going to take place. Style is also an important component in assessing the quality of translation, but it is difficult to gauge because the customer’s reviewer may add too much subjectivity into it. Also, be open to discuss what standards your organization adheres to, whether corporate style is paramount, etc. Again, be specific because it is a way of showing respect to a professional linguist.

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Filed under Customer relationship, Grammar, Negotiations, Style, Syntax, Translation errors, Vocabulary

How to translate ‘cloud computing’ in Spanish?

The concept of cloud computing has been around for a while now. In Spanish, the cloud is simply “la nube”. With that noun in mind, phrases like cloud computing and cloud storage have been translated as computación en la nube/informática en la nube and almacenamiento en la nube, respectively. I find this construction quite laughable, actually, since it reminds me of the phrase en la nube as in Él andaba por las nubes durante la ceremonia (He was daydreaming during the ceremony).

Here’s my problem with it. Spanish already has nimbo, from the Latin nimbus, which means nube. Its morphology would allow it to be used as a prefix. My solution? Nimbocomputación or nimboinformática.

I think many translators are afraid to coin neologisms and, instead, refer to Google for word choices. This is equivalent to a software programmer asking a Best Buy employee for advice on how to build a mobile app.

Of course, the future of any neologism lies in widespread acceptance and usage. I recognize that usage has an inherent strong democratic power, regardless of reason, logic or level of education. Right now, the Wild West that is the Internet is informing specialized content with consequences both good and bad.

Although this is a quixotic effort on my part, I’ll keep using nimbocomputación…at least, in private.

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Filed under Etymology, Lexicography, Syntax, Terminology, Vocabulary, Word formation