Sunday, 31 May 2009


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.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Spot the difference

Today I went for an afternoon walk on the Yorkshire Wolds, close to the village of Warter. The village is typical of many in this rural region of East Yorkshire, but it has recently achieved some renown, the surrounding countryside having received the attention of world-famous artist David Hockney. In the late 90's, Hockney, if nothing an innovative artist, returned to his native county to paint landscapes. As some of the 360-degree panoramas I enjoyed today bear witness, landscapes here can be quite expansive. Equally expansive are the paintings that Hockney has created to depict some of the views here: Bigger Trees Near Warter, one of these paintings, is made up of 50 smaller canvases, adding up to an area 12 metres by 5 metres high. The landscapes here may well be sweeping, but they can be dynamic too as I found later when I walked across Nunburnholme Wold. Hockney's winter and summer views of the beech copse here are a little more modest in size, at 3m x 4m. It was Hockney's intention to reproduce the self same scene in spring and autumn, but when he returned in March this year, he found a scene of devastation. The copse had been felled for its valuable timber. Nothing remains but an empty sky (see above).
For more information: The fallen beech trees and the lost canvas.

Another interesting oddity of this afternoon's outing was the discovery of the Kipling Cotes racecourse, said to be the venue for the oldest horserace in England

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Disposable kids

I always have a chuckle when I pass this shop on the way back from the baker's every Saturday morning.
Of course, "baby" and "dump" are legitimate words in Dutch, but I wouldn't advise this store to expand its business to English-speaking markets. Whereas "dump" in English means a "tip", a place to dispose of unwanted items, in Dutch it is more commonly used to denote a store where surplus goods (which are "dumped", as it were) are sold - like an army & navy store.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009


The words on the left-hand side of the building read "Kindergarten und Volksschule" and on the right-hand side "Maternelle et élémentaire". You could have been forgiven for thinking you were in the German-speaking community of Belgian Wallonia, Alsace even, or a bilingual canton in Switzerland. But no, the official language here is Italian. The school was in Gressoney St. Jean, an alpine village that nestles high up in the Val di Gressoney, in the mountainous region of Valle d'Aosta, in the far north-west of Italy. Gressoney St Jean, its twin village of Gressoney la Trinité and Issime (Eischeme) form part of a small, anomalous German-speaking enclave on the southern flanks of the Pennine Alps, 100 kilometres north of Turin. Val d'Aosta, of course, is famous for the French patois which is widely spoken throughout the region. This "Sprachinsel" in the east of the region is less well-known however.
A Germanic language has been spoken in these villages for centuries, brought over the mountains in the early Middle Ages by settlers from the region of present-day Switzerland known as Valais (in German, Wallis). It is purported that these settlers travelled in small numbers across the high passes of the Alps to colonise unexploited valleys on the southern side of the mountains. They brought with them their language and traditions. The German dialect, known as Walser, has managed to survive to the present day in these isolated communities, despite being surrounded on all sides by a Francophone population and later, the dominant influence of the Italian langauge.
There were other German-speaking colonies too in these high mountain valleys, notably the community known as "Canton des Allemands" in Val d'Ayas, where the dialect was gradually swallowed up by the Francophone population.
The twin villages of Gressoney and Issime (dialect: Eischeme) are separated from each other by the French-speaking community of Gaby, so the two dialects developed along different lines. The language of the Walsers of Issime, Töitschu, is very archaic and similar to medieval German. The language of Gressoney, Titsch, is more similar to modern German.
It was a public holiday when I visited the village, so it had been overrun by day-trippers from Turin and Milan and Italian was, of course, the Lingua Franca. The Tourist Information Office (on the Liskam Waeg) unfortunately wasn't well stocked with information and the lady in charge spoke only Italian and French. However, she did present me with an interesting booklet giving a brief insight into the culture and language of this Walser community.
For more information on the Wasler community go to: