English or Globish? Does 'purity' or flexibility matter most?

  • Greater than 3 minutes, my friend!

    The world of translation is one of extraordinary detail.

    When people who love words and ideas read a poorly done translation, they tend to say something like: “It is simply not enough to be bilingual to do translations.”

    There are plenty of excellent professional translators out there who do not have a degree specifically in translation itself. Many professional translators have extensive backgrounds in a specific field, as well as an in-depth knowledge of at least two languages.

    Currently, I live in beautiful and artsy Paris, and I regularly see real linguistic ‘gems’ on walls and signs in public places, in magazines, books, on advertisements, and almost everywhere else. These range from simply incorrect, to rude, and even unwillingly kinky. They are published, and apparently someone was paid to do the translation. Or it was fed into an application or programme. So? Who really cares? Well, I do. And I am not alone.

    There is no need for extravagant prose to produce a sign saying a shop is closed for the day, or to say that the ‘dessert of the day’ is “Apple Grumble”, or even that Seafood Risotto is ‘Too cooked rice with fishes’. Not every restaurant owner is going to hire a professional to work on something that may only be used for a few days.


    On any given day here in the City of Light, you cannot successfully toss a croissant across the street without hitting a native Anglophone on their way to the Boulangerie.

    And perhaps, just maybe, that English-speaking person that gets hit with the flying croissant can be persuaded to re-read the sign or menu before it is public?

    In our fast-paced world of impatience and technology, it would seem that some people are quite satisfied with publishing Globish (a sort of international, simplified English). There are several articles about this linguistic phenomenon in the Financial Times, The New Yorker and many others.

    Do we “blame” such poor quality on Google translate? Can we wag a finger at translation agencies who pay their freelance translators the equivalent of minimum wage, while reiterating a sweet promise of further work down the line? What can we say about the plethora of web sites popping up online that offer to deliver translations at lightning speed?

    Some of these agencies or ‘super speedy translation’ companies use machines to start the job. Yes, the machine can do some repetitive tasks wonderfully! We love avoiding boring work. These ‘companies’ merrily produce reams of automated translations and then contact real human translators to tidy up the mess pronto before the agency delivers the product back to the client and gets paid properly. Naturally, they consider what they are asking the human translator to do as ‘editing’ or ‘correcting’ a translation, and the very low rate they offer reflects this. However, depending on the subject and style in the original document, this clean-up-task often takes longer than doing the entire translation from A to Z. Why? Because terms and verb tenses change slightly from one language to another and the machine does not know which one to select.

    Verb tenses are not identical from one language to another so when a robot does the job, it is not only basic grammar and ‘meaning’ that become weak, but a great deal of precision can be lost with the click of a button.

    Let’s look at a simple example. An Anglophone does not understand: ‘Thieves have taken the diamonds and money’ and ‘Thieves took the diamonds and money’ as being exactly the same message. Whereas in French, for example, the verb tense would be the same and the writer would likely explain the current whereabouts of the diamonds and money by other means: probably by adding words, or a sentence.

    Similarly, in English we do not commonly use ‘one’ anymore to avoid selecting a pronoun.

    For example: One stole my wallet. > Someone stole my wallet. / (Passive voice) My wallet was stolen.

    There is plenty more to say about overusing the passive voice and about other faux pas to avoid to obtain what we consider ‘good English’. A machine cannot always accurately detect these or, more importantly, it cannot rewrite the sentence so that it actually makes sense to the reader.

    Admittedly, it is endearing, colourful and amusing to order an ‘Apple Grumble’. This kind of local ‘colour’ is deliciously marvelous. May it never change!

    So, while we all continue to applaud local colour and charm – even with mistakes -, let’s remember to applaud linguistic excellence as well! There is a time and a place for both.

    English is “everywhere”, but perhaps it needn’t suffer too much for its success…

    4 thoughts on “English or Globish? Does 'purity' or flexibility matter most?

    1. Something I often see even in London is copy on websites written by a non-native speaker. The writer may be a fluent English speaker, and have lived here for years. But either they assume they are not making (usually small) mistakes, or they don’t think it’s important. Even if they are on a shoestring, I always wonder why they don’t at least get a native friend to cast an eye over it. It can really take away from the brand credibility (last year I read about a study which found that a large proportion of Anglophones said that they wouldn’t trust a company whose website had mistakes in English).

      On the other hand, I did wonder whether companies (particularly in tourism) would see it as part of the local charm to not correct the English, as you mention. After all we wouldn’t expect the staff to speak English with zero mistakes or an English accent.

      1. Hi Fuschia,

        Many times I think it’s a question of costs. Good English translators and copywriters usually come from high-income countries and they must be paid good rates for their services. And rightfully so. Many businesses want to save and content is the first where they’ll cut on budget.

        But the more I talk to people, I realize that it is mostly a lack of information about the importance of good quality content and how to choose professional content creators and translators. That’s why it is so important to write a lot about our profession and keep people informed.

        1. I agree completely Claudia. It’s very true too that people don’t know what translators ‘really’ do. Often they imagine us with big dictionaries and lots of time to sip tea and ponder the next word. It’s the re-writing, the adapting, the syntax etc that take time. And for this reason, yes, we need to ‘shout’ a little louder!

      2. Even in London… Oh dear. I suppose so. I’ve seen it in Toronto and other places too. Usually, it’s charming. I do remember that study about mistakes in English. It seems that our extra ‘wordy’ culture can keep up to the constant demand for ‘content’ and companies either choose to let quality slide, or, as you say, they just don’t notice. Isn’t it intriguing that in London – arguably the cradle of English – there is a new brand of local charm, with those little foibles…?. 😉 Thanks for your comment!


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