Saturday, January 31, 2009

Cunning Linguists

Currently contracted with a certain German Rail firm which shall remain nameless, I was recently called upon to do some editorial work on a jargon-filled intra-company brochure, regarding such cryptic and vaguely pornographic-sounding (maybe I am just a dreckige Sau) concepts as "Combined Transport" and the "transshipment" of "load units" in their "3 Corridor Structure". Oh, and let's not forget "add-on modules". Somebody get the smelling salts!

The in-house translation is betrayed by the tortured syntax and relentlessly abstract and logical progression of ideas, which occasionally get bogged down in repetition. I sat mesmerized as the rep drew several diagrams and charts to augment the abstruse technical English welded together by the translator. We had to dissect each sentence individually, and she did her best to define the terms to a mere lay person. Poring over such patently meaningless and stiff-as-a-board phrases as I had ever heard ("turnkey solutions"?) I wondered if the customers or contract-holders would even understand the exact nature of the products and services being described. The agency wants me to hack away some of the verbiage (you laugh) and simplify the text for clients throughout Europe and Asia. As you can see I have my work cut out for me:

Multimodal transport chains are one of the most important ways of carrying goods efficiently and reliably from A to B. We live up to these expectations by providing our core competency -- the rail transport of load units -- as part of Combined Transport chains. We also offer a further range of logistics components in the form of add-on modules and comprehensive extra services at the terminals, as well as services relating to all aspects of load units. Constant optimisation (Germans LOVE this word) of our transport products, efficient processes at the interfaces, and complete logistics solutions with suitable partner companies are our response to coping with increasingly complex logistics tasks.

It couldn't have been said better by HAL , 2001's evil computer himself. It's no wonder Dinglish has come under fire lately for adding bizarre, clunky and untranslatable phrases to the lexicon. Two examples from recent ad campaigns: "Come in and find out!" and "Powered by emotion!" Even my students are totally perplexed by these forehead-smack-inducing expressions.

I couldn't help but envisage a US counterpart to such a brochure, which would eschew logic for idiomatic feeling with a folksy Sarah Palin type in hard hat, proudly cutting the crap in her nasal Wasilla inflection:

"Don't sweat it, we'll get yer stuff where it needs to go, OK?"

Unlike a computer, we can all trust a friendly, sexy librarian, right?

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