Last month, we were asked to edit the English pages of a website for an international festival of sports photography, which will take place in Narbonne, France, this summer.
It’s quite the event. Seven prestigious exhibitions across the city over 18 days featuring images from the likes L’Equipe, AFP, Chinese media organisation Xinhua and the Magnum agency, and it includes a major competition open to professional sports photographers across the world. The website, for the record, goes live in April.
The request came out of the blue.
We visited Narbonne in 2012, and happened to catch a small taster event. By chance, one of the festival founders was there and we got talking. Eight months after that five-minute chat came an email that led to two people working for 14 hours straight (each) editing and rewriting copy written by someone for whom English is not a first language.
But – nice to get the job though it was – that’s not the point.
This is the point. The original French text had been translated into English by someone who was clearly no slouch. But the organisers – not to mention the translator, and the translation chip they used to help them – understood that some French linguistic idiosyncracies (and English ones for that matter) don’t necessarily translate easily or comfortably.
Which is where we came in. The English we were presented with worked. Mostly. Sort of. But it was English written by an intelligent French person, and some of the phrasing jarred.
And some of the references, so obvious to a Frenchman or woman would mean nothing to someone from England, or America (unless – to cite just one example – they happened to have intimate knowledge of the French political system in the late 1950s. We took the trouble to find out and added it into the copy so those who click their way on to the website won’t have to).
The English wasn’t natural. It contained references that needed clarifying, spoke of places and events that needed explaining, featured phrases that needed changing, and facts that needed checking.
Anyone who has brought up children overseas will recognise the linguistic problem. Our daughter was born in England but goes to school in France. To all intents and purposes she is bilingual, but sometimes her grammar gets a little mixed up. For example, she goes ‘at school’ and her beloved pet is a ‘cat grey’.
It doesn’t detract from the message she wants to get across. No one could claim they don’t understand her, but it is the sort of thing that can stop people in their tracks.
While this is forgiveable in a young child, it’s not quite so understandable for a website promoting what is intended to be a major international event. So, chapeau (as they say in France) to the organisers of the event for recognising the need to get their English checked. We hope their website will travel all the better for it. You can find it here, by the way.
Don’t think, either, you can do it on the cheap using those handy translation sites on the internet. While such tools can sometimes be useful, they are a long way from perfect.
To prove the point, I translated an extract from an application letter I once wrote into French and then back into English using one of these translation sites (I won’t say which, but it starts with ‘G’ and ends with ‘oogle’).
This is what it came up with:
I wrote pages of newspapers published news and supplements automobiles, entertainment guides and magazines property. More recently, I have been responsible for the drafting of standards in television programs and the Department functionality.
The original made sense, by the way, but chances of anyone landing a writing job with that? Snowballs and hell spring to mind. And while it’s pretty bad, it’s not the worst translation I’ve seen produced by these sites.
It’s all about attention to detail. The organisers of Narbonne’s photo festival know it. It’s our job as writers and editors to know it. If everyone knew it, it could well be the difference between making sense and not making sense.
In any language.