Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How Intelligible is Your English to a Global Audience?

Yesterday's Science supplement to the New York Times featured a profile of Steven Pinker, a psychologist and linguist who wrote The Language Instinct, among other books. The article included a sidebar of "Pinkerisms", quotes from some of his writings. Here is one I found particularly interesting: "Thanks to the redundancy of language, yxx cxn xndxrstxnd whxt x xm wrxtxng xvxn xf x rxplxcx xll thx vxwxls wxth xn “x” (t gts lttl hrdr f y dn’t vn kn whr th vwls r)." (from The Language Instinct).

Native English speakers can decode this relatively easily as "You can understand what I am writing even if I replace all the vowels with an 'x' (It gets a little harder if you don't even know where the vowels are)." But how would people who use English in their business lives, but aren't near-native speakers of the language, fare? I imagine my brother, who sells custom musical instruments around the world, calling: "I think this might be English, but I can't tell. Can you figure it out?"

To be sure, most business communication isn't that unintelligible to speakers of English as a foreign language. But convoluted sentences rife with jargon, augmented by misplaced words that spell check didn't catch, incomplete phrases and circular logic are all too common in technical, legal and business writing. That's as true for German (and, I suspect, other languages, as well) as it is for English. If it takes a native speaker two or more passes to understand a paragraph, how will someone with a more limited command of the language struggle through the text?

Since English is the global lingua franca, and professional texts are  increasingly not translated into other languages, it behoves technical communicators to consider non-native-speaking audiences when they write. As translators who work with English, we are uniquely positioned to provide guidance on this topic. After all, we are at home in multiple languages and cultures, and interact regularly with business people from other countries. Many international translation agencies communicate with their freelancers in English, even if the project manager is, say, a native Spanish speaker, and the translator works into Russian. Maybe we can turn this experience into a sideline: editing English texts for a global audience.

PS: A plug for myself: I am giving a presentation on "Writing for Global Audiences" at the Society for Technical Communication's annual conference next May in Chicago./p>

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