Sunday, 31 May 2009

Kantoortaal

Like many economic activities, the translation business hasn't been immune to the effects of the recession. I've heard horror stories of fellow translators whose turnover has been slashed in a instant as a result of losing a major client, or an agency shopping for cheaper rates. Developing a broad client-base, which more faithfully mirrors the real economy, would seem to be the best way of riding the downturn.
Translation work still comes in, but the emphasis has shifted: people have become edgy and this has been reflected in job content. Corporate missions and visions have had to be amended to take into account the changing (read: waning) fortunes of the business. In these troubled times, settlement agreements for redundant employees, letters to suppliers justifying extensions in terms of payment and missives to pension fund participants notifying them of higher contributions to plug the widening funding gap are becoming much more part of the translator's remit.
Not only has the emphasis changed, so too has the vocabulary. Much of the language used in such communiqués is now designed to cushion the blow and mask the harsh realities of economic decline.
An article I read in a recent edition of NRC Next (see blog) I was flicking through on my return from the UK struck a chord. It was about kantoortaal, or officespeak. Kantoortaal contains a diversity of metapahors and euphemisms, often conceived to mystify the reader or listener. In the recession, this language is used to gloss over setbacks inevitably leading to downsizing (itself a euphemism). Ontslag (redundancy), the article explains, is transfomed into afscheid nemen (taking leave) and bezuinigingen (cutbacks) into taakstellingen (reviews). And banks don't go failliet (bankrupt), they vallen om (fall over).
Okay, I'm stabbing at precise English equivalents here, since here lies the problem in translating kantoortaal into officespeak. Euphemisms in one language are so specific that there is no ready-made translation for them in another; and you won't find them in the dictionary either. The assumption is that the client requiring the translation wants an English text that echoes the cushioned tone of the original language, so a company who, in veiled terms, is really saying, "we have to axe employees because of the credit crisis," would prefer to see a text that is not as hard hitting, maybe, "current fluctuations in the financial world have brought pressure on us to implement a root and branch review of all positions of employment within the business."
Help may be at hand. Entering "officespeak" in Google provides a mine of information on the subject (see BBC-site). However, no one has yet come up with a glossary of bi-lingual officespeak, so for the time being, in these difficult times, we will have to continue honing our creative skills. One thing's for sure though: we won't be getting paid extra for it. But at least we won't be out of a job.

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