mardi 26 mai 2009

Precisely-wrong English

Prologue: George, An Orang-Utan in a Translator Suit?

This crowd (see next section) was brought to my attention by a hopeless wannabe translator. There is a guy who has made quite a name for himself on the odd translators’ website by asking embarrassingly stupid terminology questions. Let’s call him “George”, after an orang-utan1 who was a popular exhibit at the Adelaide Zoo in my childhood. George asks such dumb questions, many of which could be answered with a pocket dictionary or even without any help by non-linguists, and asks them so unrelentingly, that I felt compelled to investigate him further.

It turns out, inter alia, that he is responsible for the following gem, from a textbook translation:

The Revolution scene was not one of explosions – or even one of fractured relationships – rather, it was the final result of the osmosis-like progression of a State turning a new State; the infiltration of the Viêt-Minh in all sectors of national life was one that was met with an entirely logical ending. However, this was made possible only with the extraordinary help of the circumstances that were.

(Note concerning copyright: The sample quoted comes within the limits of “fair dealing”. I have not seen any assertion of the translator’s right to be identified by name, and out of charity I have refrained from so identifying him. If George insists, however, I will modify this posting to include his name.)

Now imagine you are a history student: would you want to read a whole textbook written in that style? Would you even be able to understand it? (There are another 261 words from this translation in George’s on-line portfolio, and believe me, it doesn’t get any better.)

The above extract was taking from the orang-utan’s portfolio of work on It contains three items. Apart from this textbook extract, there is a claim to have translated a letter:

This particular letter was from a French travel business to the British Government asking for their permission for something (the particulars are confidential).

Yeah, right, George, that is a really useful sample of work, isn’t it? So what else do you have to show us, George? Oh, there’s this:

I translated material for a professional company website from English into French and German - even though my mother tongue is English! But they seem pleased with what I supplied them!

This time, at least there is a URL: <>.

So let us look at the French and German versions of that website to see whether our “translator” is any more literate in those languages than in his native tongue. That’s where things start getting interesting (sort of): there are no French and German pages on the site! So apparently the folk at Precise-English (the hyphen seems to be part of their name) thought better of their enthusiasm for our friend George’s work.

I have not named this so-called translator. It might smack of self-interest to bag my competitors. (I do have a somewhat neglected blog devoted to fraudulent translators, but George seems remarkably candid about his lack of qualifications and experience; so he is not really a candidate for that site, unless you count his claim to be a “Highly literate, aware and keen translator”!) In this regard, I might point out that George has a quoted rate on the Odesk site of $10.56 an hour. I have no idea why he quotes such an odd amount; I can only assume that at some stage he ran his Sterling or euro rate through a currency conversion site. Anyway, it is a generally accepted industry standard for a translator to have a throughput of 2,500 to 3,000 words a day. So let us be conservative, and assume an hourly throughput of 300 words (corresponding to a daily throughput of 2,400 words with an eight-hour day). So George’s hourly rate converts, under these charitable assumptions, to $0.0352 per word. Of course, it is entirely George’s business how much he charges (and, to give him his due, actually charging anything at all for his work is a bit over the top), but you’d need to offer me around four times this amount before I even bothered answering the email. So we are not competing in the same market. That said, I have decided to err on the side of caution and decorum, and will not name this moron unless provoked.


So now let’s turn to Precise-English. What sort of company would employ a translator working into a non-native language? One that didn’t care too much about the linguistic quality of the result! This seems odd: surely a company calling itself Precise-English would want its French and German advertising written in precise French or German? This leads to another question: Just how precise is Precise-English’s English?

Consider the following examples:
  • Whether you are native English or not, the way you present your specific text really matters.

  • To be one step ahead in the modern world you need to be sure of not only the grammar and spelling in your text, but the desired meaning is in correct English.

  • Below is a few of the services we can provide, click the Services tab for more information.

  • Precise-English puts an emphasis on understanding our clients needs, we really mean it when we say we want to make your document the best it can be!

The range of grammatical and stylistic faults presented here extends from the venial (such as the “comma splice” in the last two examples) to the grotesque (such as “Below is a few...”). Incidentally, this last-mentioned transgression is clear evidence of non-native authorship. No native speaker of English would even think of treating a few as singular!

So here we have it, a company calling itself Precise-English and offering a writing and editing service with, ahem, precision as a selling point, but unable to produce simple grammatically correct English sentences even in its advertising. Why do they even bother?


1. On second thoughts, maybe that is unfair to the orang-utan.

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