Whether you’re a large company hoping to achieve something significant, or a small business looking to attract the attention of a potential passing customer, you need to avoid mistakes. Typos and poor grammar can turn people off.
But one important thing to consider, which became more apparent to me in the last month, is that often mistakes are a result of problems in translation. This occurs not only in writing, but in speaking as well. I spent some time in France and Belgium recently, and had lots of fun observing the way things translate differently from French to English, and vice versa. I was already aware of this, as I studied French in high school, but seeing it and hearing it around me was an eye-opening experience.
For example, on a tour to the magnificent Mont Saint Michel in Normandy, our tour guide would sometimes say the name in what would technically be the English translation: Mount Saint Michael. And every time he said it, I smiled. It sounded kind of funny, and I think that’s because some things just don’t need to be translated – especially names.
I think part of communicating effectively involves acknowledging and understanding, to some extent, the different languages of the world. And it’s important to use some logic as well, because quite often direct translations don’t make sense.
For example, a chocolate croissant in French is pain au chocolat, for which the direct translation would be chocolate bread. But you probably wouldn’t put “chocolate bread” on a menu. You need to consider what chocolate bread might be referring to, and adjust it in a way that English speakers will understand.
Another good example is chocolat chaud, which is a hot chocolate. But if you tried to translate that as two separate words in that order without considering the way French works, it would come out as "chocolate hot".
It does seem that French words are a little back-to-front at times, like in “la tour Eiffel”, where the tower part comes first. But they usually translate well. You just have to be aware of the differences if you’re dealing with other languages. And don't assume that "tour" in French just means "tour" in English. Always find out first.
If, in your writing, you wish to use a language other than the one(s) you’re familiar with, just be sure you’re learning as much as you can about it. A mix-up in translation can be just as damaging as a typo. In general it matters to be thorough and strive to communicate in the way that your audience will understand.
On a side note, consider one of my favourite quotes by JRR Tolkien:
“Do not write down to children or to anybody.”
I agree that we should be as complex as we can be because surely that will encourage others to learn something new. Use other languages if you can. Use big words. Be clever and diverse. But my message is to be sure you’re doing it right. Translate properly, get your stuff edited, and just double-check things.
And a little bit of travel advice:
If you’re in a foreign country and struggle to understand the language, always consider context. If your taxi driver has stopped and is talking in his/her language and gesturing to the left and the right, and you’re too focused on trying to understand what they're saying, you might miss the very obvious fact that they’re asking whether to go left or right. It’s not always about words; sometimes body language and surroundings can give away what the person is trying to communicate. Just think about where you are and what you’re doing, and the meaning behind what is written or being spoken may become clearer.
If you see a red windmill in front of the words "Moulin Rouge" it might be fair to assume moulin rouge means "red windmill". Again, though, it's backwards, so if you took it word by word without considering French properly you would get "mill red". This is also another example of a time you would just leave the French name as it is, because Moulin Rouge sounds much nicer than Mill Red, or even Red Mill.
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