Mar 102010

Listen to: How Do You Interpret This?

I have just received a very interesting offer from a German interpreting company. It came through the post and addressed to my translation agency, in a brown A4 envelope, with a fairly thick, bulky brochure attached.

On first quick scanning of the letter, it looked quite impressive and the letter did its job. I picked up the brochure – quite a thick presentation and thick paper – good quality printing all about conference interpreting.

The brochure was nicely presented, good use of photographs – plenty of “white space” – nice brochure. I flicked through the first half, which was in German. I thought to myself “hey this is very good – I’ll just flick forwards through to the next part where they’ll have the English version”. So I flicked through the rest of the document, all looking very nice, but the whole thing was in German.

I don’t get it. The letter was English, sent to an English address. They clearly knew it was to an English firm, but the brochure is in German. I know that it says translations in the company name, but that doesn’t actually mean that I’m going to pay somebody to read your marketing literature. I don’t speak German, some agency owners will, but most won’t.

So I decided to go back and have another look at the letter. Now before I rip into the letter, let me say again, the letter did its job. It got me to open the brochure and have a look. That is what the letter is for. But on closer inspection, the letter is seriously wanting as well.

It starts with the foreigners classic, “Ladies and Gentlemen”. That is not how to start a letter – that is how to begin a speech. Well, this is written by a conference interpreting firm, so we can only assume that their skill set lies in the spoken realm. Yes, sadly on close inspection, the letter is very foreign sounding “this is not an image brochure”. Can anyone tell me what an image brochure is? Sorry but I’ve never heard of one. I bet if you are a German-English translator you will know the German word this was translated from – I don’t.

Next we have “This is an updated, highly informative handout about conference interpreting.” Well I think I can figure out what what they’re trying to say, but it’s very stilted.

They even go on to talk about having interpreted for Barak Obama and Tony Blair. Clearly these people are top-flight interpreters.

I could go on. In fact, I’d quite like to go on. But I won’t. Why won’t I? Simply because I’m not trying to embarrass or belittle people. I am simply trying to make the point that when you spend time and money marketing yourself, you would be very wise to ensure that you have good quality marketing materials to do it with.

It would probably have been mortifying for them to admit this, but what they actually needed was a translator. Not only that, but it needed to be someone with native English.

Perhaps it was a mistake? Perhaps all the other agencies in the UK that they sent their materials to received a copy of the brochure in English? Why do I doubt that?

I don’t know. Let’s call it a gut-feel thing. How undignified would it be for somebody who has interpreted for president Obama to have to pay a translator – a mere translator – to prepare marketing materials for them. Dignified or not, it was clearly necessary in this case.

This is a very clear example of a top flight professional thinking that a translation can be done satisfactorily by a non native. Even worse, it’s a language professional. Tut, tut – should know better! This is somewhat disheartening for the profession. How can we expect captains of industry, businessmen, governments, and others to respect, value and take our profession seriously, if our fellow language professionals don’t? I guess they thought they could do it OK? But isn’t that something we hear nearly every day when we’re asked to proofread and correct poorly written documents that were translated by the “secretary who knows a bit of English”.

Okay. I don’t mind a letter from a foreigner who sounds a bit like a foreigner. That is to be expected. That is forgivable. But what I find unforgivable, in terms of marketing errors, is the sending of a 24 page brochure in German trying to solicit work from a UK firm. The only reason I didn’t throw it in the bin immediately was because I thought it would make an interesting article on how not to market yourself.

Alex Eames
helping translators do better business

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