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The lessons gained in translation

I was at the bourse in Brussels the other day to give a presentation on rhetoric and translation to the UETF, or Université d’été de la traduction financière, a conference for business translators.

Here was a formidable breed of professionals, a crowd who could make “leveraging key potentialities in the transitional churn space” sound like it meant something in any language at all.

Translation poses some very particular problems for the persuasive speaker or writer. As the 20th-century rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke put it: “You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, identifying your ways with his.”

To truncate the quote: you persuade a man only inasmuch as you can talk his language.

There is the problem. So much of ethos – your connection with the audience – depends on common ground: shared idioms, shared references, a taken-for-granted confluence of world views and styles. So if you are a chief executive giving a presentation in a language not your own, or someone working to translate a document into a different language, you are in a tricky situation. Much of the work of persuasion is done in the fine grain of the language.

An English person delivering a speech that has been written in impeccably idiomatic French – when his or her accent and ad-libs make clear their command of the language is at odds with the skill of the translator – will sound grating. The words will not seem to belong to the person speaking them.

We are accustomed to the “when in Rome do as the Romans do” attitude. Some cultures prize modesty, others self-confidence. Some are periphrastic, others direct.

It is vital that you get decorum – the register and tone of a speech – right for the target audience. Jokey when solemn is expected will grate; solemn when jokey is expected will bore. British self-deprecation, according to one translator, travels less well than American-style directness: the signals are harder to read.

And for those in a press conference situation, it is worth being aware of what the local journalists are like. One translator tells me that the French press are not so accepting of the “bump and run” PR practice, where you pretend to answer their question but in fact steer the discussion over to another issue entirely.

It is vital that you get decorum right for the target audience

It is not just mood music: specific decisions about grammar and style can be fundamental across a culture. An example I learnt from my hosts is that in French-speaking environments it is standard business convention for senior executives to refer to their companies in the third person: “Hachette’s results in the third quarter were . . .” In the Anglosphere, we would more naturally say: “Our results . . .” Third person, to us, sounds stiff and even evasive. To a French ear, I daresay, first person sounds too slangy, even presumptuous. Here is an instance where a style decision that is neutral or unmarked in one language carries baggage in another.

What do you do, then, when you are writing a speech or a briefing for a French CEO addressing an English audience? They might revolt at the idea of addressing shareholders in the first person plural. How do you talk them round? A delicate rhetorical situation for the translator or adviser: you are trying to persuade your boss of something, in order for him to persuade others better.

My best advice: press on them the wisdom of the old saw that when you go fishing you bait the hook with what the fish likes, not with what you like.



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