Friday, September 22, 2006

Translations with an ulterior motive

As an aspiring interpreter and translator, I'd like to believe that the primary reason for bilingual materials---street signs, instruction manuals, what have you---is to allow a greater population to understand what you have to say. However, I've started to realize that there are many occasions in which things are printed in multiple languages simply to create a certain effect. It's as much a part of the image as a company logo or packaging.

Perhaps I should have noticed this sooner. After all, I'm well aware that a sizeable fraction of my French knowledge comes from reading the labels on my beauty products while I'm standing in the shower waiting for my hair conditioner to work. Yet I seriously doubt that the French translations describing the "gentle yet effective cleansing action that will leave me refreshed and in a state of total well-being" are there for the benefit of non-English-speaking French nationals. No, they're there because we associate France with fashion and beauty. The same goes for the liner notes in my classical CDs, which often appear in French, German, and/or Italian as well. Classical music is such a culturally proper thing to enjoy, and we all know that Western Europe is the model for highbrow entertainment.

In other arenas, the languages can be different too. "Acta Met", a frequently-referenced academic journal in materials science, is the short name for Acta Metallurgica et Materialia, and articles appearing in this journal have their abstracts printed in English, French, and German (though the articles themselves are only in English). Hmm, Latin title---perhaps to emphasize the long history of metallurgical studies---and French and German as an acknowledgment of the materials scientist demographic? In contrast to science and its exalted image, technology seeks to emphasize the new, the state-of-the-art, the emerging markets, which in these days means Asia. My husband, in his former job with a large semiconductor company, loved to show off his business cards, which were English on one side and Japanese on the other. He never even worked with Japanese; it was just cool to illustrate the global reach of his company's influence.

I suppose that "gratuitous" translations such as these are just a step below the common practice of saying or writing something in another language simply because it's different, of using the mystique of a foreign language to one's advantage. How often do we see supposedly profound statements inscribed in Latin, as though they could have been uttered by some ancient philosopher, rather than someone who probably writes greeting card verse for a living? And then there's the popularity of Chinese character tattoos, which (to use a foreign expression, proving my point even further)---create that je ne sais quoi that English words wouldn't be able to produce.

I suppose I don't really have a problem with foreign languages being used in this manner, except when it's done carelessly and with ridiculous results. I've seen enough Asian products with nonsensical English words on them to be cautious about going the other direction.


Marve said...

Trust me--Poccari Sweat really *is* delicious... :D

Language Lover said...

Hee...I'd forgotten all about that example! I suppose that's a case of careful ridiculous results. All part of the image. :)

Anonymous said...

Having worked in the beauty industry, I can tell you that most French/English biligual packaging (at least in the US) is not for the sake of associating French with beauty. It's to serve both the US and Canadian markets. Part of the Canadian market being, of course, Francophone.

Language Lover said...

Interesting; I hadn't thought of that, and I very much appreciate your comment. But if that's the case, why is it that other consumer products (electronics, office supplies, whatever) don't come with dual-language packaging? Also, it's only the high-end products that have French on them. The stuff I get off the shelves are Target is exclusively English, but the products I buy at cosmetics counters or from my hairdresser have the French.

Anonymous said...

It possibly has to do with each company's distribution channels and/or where their factories are located. It also, of course, happens that many cosmetics and haircare brands are of French origin (or bought over by a French conglomerate), so it's possible that some of their products are produced in France, in which case I believe it is required by law to have labels in multiple languages. I can't speak for Target, but you will definitely find non high-end Procter & Gamble products (with sufficient amount of distribution in Canada, they don't necessarily market every product in both markets) with both English & French packaging. Have pets? Check out the Iams or Eukanuba packaging :-)