I’d like some synonyms in my quotes please!

by Saveen Uthappa-Eck

Communication has always been intrinsic to my work life, which, so far, has spanned 18 years, two continents, three countries, and six industries. It’s been an enriching journey that started in fashion in India, followed by biotechnology and insurance in Germany, hospitality and telecommunications in the Middle East, and finally in retail, as a small business entrepreneur here in Munich. There are two things I’ve always loved about my jobs in communications, irrespective of industry and location: people and words.

Saveen Uthappa-Eck

Come again?

There’s just something so deeply satisfying about using language creatively to express thoughts and ideas to different audiences. For me, language has played a crucial role in pitching new clients, procuring marketing services, creating marketing copy and collateral, and building brand awareness using traditional media as well as the all-important social media platforms of today. However, barring a few occasions, I’ve mainly worked in one language. So, when I got the opportunity to use two languages simultaneously as an English editor and translator for a host of clients with Burton, Van Iersel & Whitney GmbH, I practically jumped at it.


Much ado about nothing! Or is it?

While I’ve always known that good translation isn’t simply about swapping languages verbatim, I never gave much thought to what truly lies beneath; until now. It’s been barely a month since I started my new role at BVIW, but this brief time has been an absolute eye-opener. Tonality and target audience are just the tip of the iceberg. There is a whole world of language that I’ve only now begun to fully explore. To start with there’s using American English versus British English. It’s so much more complicated than just dropping the ‘s’ to get organized and optimize. You have to pay attention to usage of general words and expressions. So, depending on which side of the pond you are, you might be angry or drunk if you’re ‘pissed’ and then have to ‘make’ or ‘take’ a decision on what to do next.

Then, there is the minefield that’s grammar. One especially tricky example is the use of the word ‘that’ vs. ‘which’.  It’s only a thorough understanding of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses that will help you pick the right word. And punctuation is also a real challenge: we’re talking serial or oxford commas, em vs. en dashes, and curly vs. straight quotes. Don’t even get me started on the placing of words like ‘only’ or using ‘global’ vs. ‘across the world’! You also can’t always sprinkle synonyms as liberally as you might like, because – depending on the context – they could end up changing the meaning of a sentence: software ‘development’ and software ‘growth’ are two very different things! Once you get past all this, it’s sentence construction, correct usage of abbreviations, and overall writing style that round off a quality translation. It’s crucial that every message is communicated accurately, while maintaining context and flow in the target language. It’s equally important to use language suited to the target audience. A good translation works only if the end reader clearly understands the message being communicated.

I came, I saw, I’m loving it!

As I hone my skills in this exciting new application of my communication expertise, which lets me bring my experience across a number of industries and cultures to bear on behalf of BVIW’s customers as I copywrite, edit and translate corporate communications materials for them, there is something I can already say with conviction: I work with a great team! A place is only as good as the people you know in it – and this couldn’t be truer at BVIW.  As the new kid on the block, not only have I been welcomed with open arms, but every time I’ve felt lost or overwhelmed, there’s always an encouraging word, a cup of joe (that’s coffee for the British English speakers – see what I mean!) and a sweet treat. No, really. I’m not kidding about the treats. “This place is all about the food”, I was told on my first day at work, and they weren’t lying. But, it’s exactly this sort of camaraderie that makes BVIW a fun place to work.  So, as I start this year in my new role, I’d like to raise a toast to BVIW, to its terrific team and to the complex and wonderful world of language and corporate communications. May it continue to be as exciting and enriching for me as the last 18 years!

2 responses to “I’d like some synonyms in my quotes please!”

  1. Sigurjon Helgi Kristjansson says:

    Yes, you are quite correct. You have to be so careful about your choice of words. I was once a District Mission Leader, and frequently had to warn Missionaries, NEVER to use the word “Fanny” to designate a persons “bottom” (which is common practice in the USA), as for the English it denoted something women have and men do not.

    You can say “fart” in America, and no one cares (you can in Scotland too), however, in England, they consider it vulgar (common) and rude, as they prefer the words “trump” or “pump”, whereas to trump in the USA, would be to blow a trumpet, similar to the Bible, where it says the angel blew the last trump (imagine what the English would think).

    They same problem arises when it comes to idioms or expressions. Translating them from one language to another can be a task and a half.

    In the UK/USA they say: “To kill two birds with one stone”, but in Iceland, they say: “To kill two flies in one strike (blow).”

    Then of course, there is the problem with the availability of synonyms in different languages. Icelandic has a number of words and even metaphors for things that were historically of great importance, e.g. snow, horse, sheep and dog, whereas in other languages the amount of available synonyms may not be as abundant, thus making it more difficult to choose different synonyms. – This is something clients have a great difficulty to understand.

    You can say something in one language, and it makes you sound very refined, but translate it into the target language, and you sound pretentious.

    Then there is the task of maintaining style, e.g. when subtitling or translating literature which could be:

    – period (e.g. Shakespeare or Pride and Prejudice)
    – slang (police drama e.g. Sherlock Holmes or Miami Vice or Hawaii 5-0)
    – present day (compare today’s language with what was “present day” back in the 40’s and then 60’s).

    People do not value our service, and the demand for our versatility. E.g. In today’s police dramas, they say “fingerprints”, whereas (as in Murdoch Mysteries and Cadfael), they would say “fingermarks”, and we would therefore have to do our research to ensure that the vocabulary suited the period, and contrary to popular belief, CAT tools do not substitute a linguists knowledge.

    • Thank you for your informative and entertaining response. I agree on all counts. It’s exactly what makes the world of language and communication so complex and wonderful. Here’s to choosing words carefully and to the exciting and enriching work we do!

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