January 05, 2005

Clarity and respect

Back in September, I somehow missed this column in the Economist, presenting some amusing entries from two allegedly genuine phrasebooks. One decodes Britspeak for Dutch businesspersons, and another translates French phrases for British diplomats (specifically for officials attending the meetings of the European Union's Council of Ministers). The column's point is that the EU's translation woes only scratch the surface of the problem, since "cultural differences mean that a literal understanding of what someone says is often a world away from real understanding". Americans, who don't care a lot about the EU's translation woes, may still find the explanations helpful.

From the first phrasebook (with some omissions filled in):

British Phrase Apparent meaning Correct translation
"Up to a point" "Partially" "Not in the slightest."
"I hear what you say" "I accept your point of view" "I disagree and I do not want to discuss it any further."
"With the greatest respect" "I respect you" "I think you are wrong, or a fool."
"By the way/incidentally" "This is not very important" "The primary purpose of our discussion is ..."
"I'll bear it in mind" "I'll take care of it" "I'll do nothing about it."
"Correct me if I'm wrong" "I may be wrong, please let me know" "I'm right, don't contradict me."

From the second:

French Phrase Literal Translation Idiomatic Translation
"je serai clair" "I will be clear" "I will be rude"
"Il faut la visibilité Européenne" "We need European visibility" "The EU must indulge in some pointless, annoying and, with luck, damaging international grand-standing."
"Il faut trouver une solution pragmatique" "We must find a pragmatic solution" "Warning: I am about to propose a highly complex, theoretical, legalistic and unworkable way forward."

Unfortunately, no bibliographic information is given. The diplomat's lexicon may be an unpublished private joke, but the British phrasebook for Dutch businesspersons should be findable, if it's really real.

I'm reminded of the well-known phrasebook of science writing, available in various versions, with translation pairs such as

"It can be shown" Somebody said they did this, but I can't duplicate their results. I can't even find the reference, or else I would have cited that instead.
"It is not unreasonable to assume" If you believe this, you'll believe anything.
"It is believed that ..." I think that ...
"It is generally accepted that ..." A guy in a bar once agreed with me.
"It is widespread knowledge that ... " Two guys in a bar once agreed with me.
"It is universally accepted that ... " The bartender agreed too.
"Typical results are shown" The best results are shown, or the only results are shown.
"of great theoretical and practical importance" interesting to me
"It is to be hoped that this paper will stimulate further work in the field" This paper is not very good, but neither are any of the others on this miserable subject.
"Thanks are due to X for assistance with the experiments and to Y for valuable discussion" X did the work, and Y explained it to me.

There are many other such lists, especially purporting to explain men to women or women to men, though I can't find any good ones at the moment.

[Economist column via Jurieland]


Posted by Mark Liberman at January 5, 2005 04:52 AM