There are many meaningless words and phrases that we often use although they don’t really make a whole lot of sense.
Although we mostly don’t notice it anymore, we are surrounded by many ritualistic constructions that clearly do not really mean anything. When a cashier at the supermarket tells you: “Hi, how are you?”, she does not really expect you to say anything beyond “Fine, and you?”, so that she could say, “Fine, thanks”, get the dumb ritual over with and start scanning bar codes. If you started complaining to the cashier loudly what a horrible day you are having today, she would probably call security. You can say a few words about weather, but that’s about the limit of what is tolerated in the supermarket line.
Time is money. Cashiers are not really interested in chitchatting with customers.
Or take the example election campaigns and the ritualistic, at this point largely meaningless event called elections. The current president, 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who was ushered into the White House on a wave of antiwar sentiment (which was one reason why John McCain did so poorly), is currently bombing seven foreign countries while proudly claiming that he does not need Congress’s permission for any of that magnificent war making. When he feels like bombing a foreign country, he can just go ahead and do it, he says.
I should have voted for John McCain. Maybe he would be bombing at this point only four countries, or possibly no more than five or six.
But of course, the more countries we bomb, the better we are protected from terrorists!
The translation business is also full of largely meaningless, ritualistic phrases that are used mostly in e-mails.
Phrases like: “Please Call If You Have Any Questions”, or “Will You Be Available Next Week?”, and also “Thank You for Your Help!
Please Call If You Have Any Questions (Yeah, Right)
Please call if you have any questions?
OK, so let’s say that I call a monolingual paralegal at a law firm or an equally monolingual project manager at a translation agency when I have a question.
“Hi Brittany (Megan, John, or whatever), I have a question about a job I am working on”.
“Ok, go ahead, what’s the question?”
“You see, in that very poorly legible Japanese Utility Model from 1971 that I am translating for your company, there is a black blob on page 7, third paragraph, fifth character from the left. I really need to know whether the poorly legible left (top, bottom) radical of the Japanese character is 刀 “katana” (knife, sword) or whether it is力 “chikara” (power, force), because it completely changes the meaning of a key technical term and it it could be either of these characters in this context.
Translators have to figure out answers to the many questions they may have on their own. If their clients knew the answers to the questions we have, they would not need us.
I often have lots of questions, but I never call because I know that it would be useless.
Will You Be Available Next Week? …. How Am I Supposed to Know That?
The question “Will you be available next week?” is another good example of something that makes no sense. How am I supposed to know the answer? I might be, or I might not.
If you have something that needs to be translated by next week, then yes, I will be available because I know that I will finish what I am translating now in about 3 days. But you have to send the document to me now, with a reference number to put on my invoice. This means that if somebody else asks me to translate something for them next week, I will have to ask them to wait.
If you might have something for me next week, or not, depending on what your client says, even if I tell you that I am available now, that can easily change within the next five minutes.
Thank You for Your Help (Makes No Sense Either)
Let’s say that I just translated a long German document, 8 thousand words, a retranslation of a likely mistranslated German contract. The mistranslation was actually a pretty impressive translation when you read it, it had all the right legal and accounting terms, but the client returned it while saying that the document cannot possibly say what the translator thinks it is saying.
So in order to discover what the problem was, I had to retranslate the whole damn thing from scratch, and only after I finished my translation I found the problem. It turned out that the author of the mistranslation translated the last sentence as “The amount is not payable” because his beloved CAT (Computer Assisted Tool), software that some translators use to speed up the translating process, misread the original text. The sentence really means “The amount is now payable” – a difference of one letter hidden among 40,000 letters that completely changes the meaning of the entire document.
But I did not “help” with the translation, I did everything by myself, and nobody helped me at all. So instead of using the words “Thank you for your help”, “Thank you for your work” would make much more sense.
When for instance a plumber fixes our sink, we generally don’t thank the person who did the work for his “help”. We thank him and pay his for his work. But for some reason, people only thank translators (if they thank us at all) for our “help”, never for our work, as if it were somebody else who really did the work.