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Friday, 22 August 2014

Use Normal Language as Your Shield Against Absurdity

Somewhat in opposition to the title, let's start from a hipster word: paradigm. The way wiki talks about it, it deals with:

  • what is to be observed and scrutinized
  • the kind of questions that are supposed to be asked and probed for answers in relation to this subject
  • how these questions are to be structured
  • how the results of scientific investigations should be interpreted
  • how is an experiment to be conducted, and what equipment is available to conduct the experiment.

Bottom line, it's a set of conventions that streamline science and confer legitimacy on research methods and results and theoretical constructs on the basis of popular consent. In plainer words, it's the rules of the game: who can play, what you play for, what you play with, what moves you can make and when, who wins etc. Same as in chess or backgammon.

No paradigm is set in stone. They are often disputed, sometimes challenged, and have their limits pushed by people. They change from time to time, sometimes naturally, sometimes in a big bang, but most of the time in nibbling small steps. This will be important here.

While science is generally credited with looking for the truth (in reality, it's more like looking for the best knowledge you can get), paradigms define the rules for making simplified judgements as to what's going to pass for truth for the time being, i.e. until someone comes up with something better, and for making sure we don't get too embarrassed when that happens.

The lingo is a very important part of any paradigm. When among the Romans you do — and talk — like the Romans do. This essentially means that you accept and follow their rules. The lingo serves as an 'us and them' kind of mechanism which sends a message of belonging to the same group and taking each other seriously. It puts you in the food chain. You and your ideas.

It can also serve to legitimize ideas which are really absurd. This is because any rules can be gamed in order to make the opposition powerless against what you are doing to them. Sun Tzu says good generals win before they start fighting.

You can end up discussing absurd things just because those silly concepts have been worded in a way which makes them look like serious subjects for discussion.

The point here is that the use of fancy words and dressing up absurd proposals and requests in what passes for acceptable language in business or in the field of translation smuggles absurdity inside the paradigm, gives legitimacy to those absurd ideas and changes the reality we work in. Unchallenged, those ideas become part of a generally accepted, received deposit of knowledge that we pass on to newbies. Or, in plain words, they get to shape our reality.

Example: You'd think that no serious person would go on to explain each and every case where a word in the text needs to be put now in the singular, now in the plural, or feminine and masculine, or a different noun case than some other time. Nowadays, however, because of what 'quality assurance' and 'quality checks' look like — and because of 'our client requires it' — serious linguists are sometimes asked to write serious reports justifying such 'inconsistencies'.

The translation 'industry' is home to ignorant people who will even ask you to please fix your errors, without bothering to ask what that was about and without the basic knowledge about language that a 10 year old should have. The magic of 'quality assurance', the new concept of translation 'quality' (mostly formatting and tags these days) and the compelling force of the invocation of their 'client' or 'client requirements' are responsible for this absurdity. And the absurdity doesn't stop there. For example you may have been asked or pressured to enter linguistic disputes with executives and managers who don't have the faintest clue what they're talking about (e.g. second-guessing your translation with a dictionary in hand, without knowing the language — or disputing your writing style when they aren't even advanced students of the language).

'Quality', 'QA', 'inconsistencies', 'feedback', 'best rates', 'our database', 'TEP' (translation + editing + proofreading), 'require', 'opportunity' are some of the magic words in our job line. They can be combined with more general management speak and marketing jargon.

First watch College Humor — Facebook Law for Idiots to see what a French-sounding word can do to people's minds. And that's not even conscious manipulation, more like naïve use by everybody involved. Typical translation business mail probably falls under this category, though I have no doubt that people closer to the sinister or outright sociopathic range are also in this 'industry'.

Go to 'What The Fuck Is My Social Media Strategy' (do it even if the f word offends you) to see how easy it is to randomly put together a piece of babble that seems to make some sense:

  • Expose new users to the brand through organic conversations
  • Target influencers with engaging assets to act as platforms for conversation
  • Encourage positive conversations to drive advocacy
  • Build loyalty & increased engagement through ongoing conversation and brand experience

Essentially, they shuffle trendy verbs like 'drive', 'leverage', 'encourage', 'target' etc. with trendy nouns like 'assets', 'platforms', 'influencers', 'advocacy'. They put them in patterns to mimic causes and effects, methods and goals.

Those sentences could theoretically have a legitimate meaning described by that sort of verbiage due to a need for precision. Except in this case they are randomly generated babble. Look at their magic at work.

The outcome resembles psychobabble or any other -babble, which is a situation when trendy jargon words are used to legitimize nonsense often by people who don't understand what they are talking about (or do, but are faking it to begin with).

Apart from cons and phoneys, probably pretty much every one of us does something like that in real life, without realizing it or without any seriously deceiptive intentions. Just like the tiny white lies and embellishments that come naturally.

Buzzwords — trendy words that already exist or hip words biz and marketing wizards make up as they go — are similar to weasel words, i.e. fuzzy language like 'some people say' or even 'it is generally believed' or 'clearly evident' which leads you to accept authority that's not even properly cited, perhaps because it's not there. Except in buzzwords mental associations are invoked instead. The 'magic' of a trendy word is used to legitimize something that doesn't normally make sense.


  1. The client is not offering any payment for this assignment.
  2. We want you to do it for free.



  1. For this particular client/assigment we are using the following schedule for fuzzy matches.
  2. Your pay will be 20% less than your normal rates for this amount of work.

  1. I am writing to offer you an exciting opportunity to work with X/become part of X team of some nouns with adjectives.
  2. We need an external translator to take over some of the workload from time to time. We have nothing special to offer but neither does anybody else, so you might just as well accept it from us as from any other guys.

In all three examples, how does #1 sound compared to #2?

Similar situations could include suddenly referring to your response to their own inquiry as an 'application' being dowgraded to the level of one of some 20 offers they are sieving through and comparing to each other.

Or their own internal procedures and request can be cited like they are public law, their own requirements as an insurmountable obstacle they can't physically remove for you.

Or instead of negotiating some changes with you, you could be referred to as a 'Doe Translations Translator', and 'Doe Translators' follow the attached ethical code, which is (as they put it) your obligation to study and follow at all times.

Obviously, 'vendor', 'subcontractor' etc. also define your role when forced on you without your outspoken opposition, which implies acceptance and may even legally constitute acceptance (making the thing binding on you in a court of law).

Bottom line: Magic words. Or, rather, magic words that are accepted without challenge.

Some buzz words are code phrases.

For example 'CAT required' without specifying which or requiring true CAT receivables simply means they'll want discounts for fuzzies. 'Best rates', 'market situation', 'permanent collaboration', 'large volume' etc. all make it so that you're supposed to use them as a pretext to give them lower prices. Of all these, 'best rates' also introduce a competitive mood.

By accepting their lingo, you accept their rules.

Don't give them the benefit of conferring easy legitimacy on their dubious or outright absurd proposals by discussing them seriously, using the language convention supplied by the agency or client. Don't accept their rules without challenge — i.e. rules that are supposed to favour them in the game. Sometimes including the power to change the rules as they go — obviously so that it's easier for them to win.

Normal language stops the madness.

... Because in normal language that sort of thing (as in #1 in the examples above) will not fly.

By using normal language you force smartasses to stop being smartasses. You can force them to get back to a normal win-win dynamic instead of gaming it so that it's win for them and loss for you. And you can put back on their shoulders the burden of persuading you to give them what they want from you.

It's also far less easy to follow a PR flow chart, i.e. scripted dialogue, in a mismatched register, e.g. more colloquial, more idiomatic, a bit more flowery or up to the point, than the register typically used in PR communications. This means they have to drop the script and start thinking on their own.

In short, normal language forces substantive communication. Personally, in some cases, I use and request 'workman's terms' for that.

(For the record, there is no shame in admitting you don't understand something. If you've really earned your degree in languages or translation, chances are something you can't understand could at least have been phrased better.)

Just talk to them in normal language, rephrase their requests and explanations and excuses into normal language and asked them if you're reading them right (as in #2) — as opposed to automatically adopting the style used in their mails, along with their perspective.

You may want to read a bit about cognitive restructuring or reframing if you're interested in this subject.

There is also plenty of connection with plain language. Things you do to your language to clear it of jargon may resemble techniques used by plain language drafters, e.g. in British civil service.

You'll need to be at least a little assertive to make this work.

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