Why getting the words right matters

by Holly Mickelson

Carnival is just around the corner, and across Germany, kids (and adults too) are putting together silly and strange costumes to celebrate the last joyful days before Lent. Even for non-Catholics, Carnival is a great opportunity to temporarily forget about the drab weather or pressing current events, such as the ongoing refugee crisis currently shaking up all of Europe. And so we trawl the internet for costume ideas.

Holly Mickelson

In between children’s pirate costumes and the gamut of Star Wars figures, some Germans were rather surprised to see the German platform of the online mega marketplace Amazon offering “Kinder Kostüm Flüchtling”. What on earth could a refugee costume be? Customer comments vigorously pointed out the tasteless, heartless, and downright stupid nature of such a name. Did they place no value on human dignity?

The German weekly magazine Stern calls the whole debacle a dire translation mistake and goes on to explain the background: The product is not actually sold by amazon.de – it’s offered by a British retailer called Fancy Me that sells historical costumes as well as contemporary ones. Amazon.de is just the platform used in Germany. On the Fancy Me UK website, the product is sold as “girl’s (or boy’s) WWII evacuee costume.”

Operation Pied Piper

During the second world war, the British government made the hard decision to evacuate people out of urban areas where the possibility of bombing was high. Of the nearly 3.5 million evacuees, many were children. While the decision no doubt saved many lives, it was a gut-wrenching experience for families. These days in British schools, lessons about WWII are bound to include an examination of the evacuation and its lasting effect on Great Britain. Some school projects encourage today’s children to dress up and “live” history – hence the popularity of the evacuee costume, since obviously a store-bought costume will save parents time.


So what happened?

Someone, somewhere, got the translation wrong. Or it got jostled in the long perilous journey by fiber-optic cable across the English Channel. In any case, it is a very unfortunate translation mistake for which both Amazon and Fancy Me UK are likely to suffer, via bad press or slowed traffic. But I’m not going to go into that, and how it’s possible some poor inexperienced translator got the job, or why machine translation is a bad idea, or even to point out that sometimes, you really do get what you pay for.

Instead, what I find far more distressing (beyond my initial reaction to even the idea of the costume – America also has a history with “evacuees” during WWII, but the reasons behind it were quite different) is the idea that someone didn’t care enough to get the meaning right. History has shown us over and over again that evacuees and refugees are most definitely not the same thing. Evacuees are removed from a dangerous area by someone else (such as the government) to protect them. Refugees are people fleeing from danger or threat who have nowhere else to go.

Refugees, evacuees, and migrants: What’s in a name?

Let’s consider another confusing, but related, word pair: “refugee” and “migrant”. They are not synonyms, although lately newscasters and politicians select between them to suit their own agenda. In short, the definition of migrant is someone who is only visiting temporarily – after a season or two, he or she will leave. A Refugee is a person who needs somewhere to go permanently. So consider the difference:

  • “Over one million migrants arrived in Germany in 2015.”
  • “Over one million refugees arrived in Germany in 2015.”

Regardless of your opinion about the fate of all these people and what is the right political or social approach for solving the related problems, it’s hard to deny that it is far easier to imagine sending them all packing if you think they have a home to go back to in the first place.

So why do I care? I don’t work for Amazon or the little costume shop in the UK. But I do work with words every day, and I firmly believe that words have power to influence and change minds. As a translator and writer, it is imperative that I take the time to consider what message I am creating. This applies to the big picture of course, but also, sometimes, to isolated words.

This means that if I’m translating a global press release for my customer I’m going to be very careful to consider the nuances of the words I choose to make sure I don’t inadvertently change the message my customer wants to convey.

By the way, we’ve stopped trawling Amazon for costume ideas. My son has decided to go as Steve from Minecraft. Finally, a use for all those amazon.de boxes!

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