Quote of the Month

from the introduction of the original edition of the Thesaurus written by Peter Mark Roget in 1852

“The utility of the present Work will be appreciated more especially by those who are engaged in the arduous process of translating into English a work written in another language. Simple as the operation may appear, on a superficial view, of rendering into English each of its sentences, the task of translating, with perfect exactness, the sense of the original, preserving at the same time the style and character of its composition, and reflecting with fidelity the mind and spirit of the author, is a task of extreme difficulty.

The cultivation of this useful department of literature was in ancient times strongly recommended both by Cicero and by Quintilian, as essential to the formation of a good writer and accomplished orator. Regarded simply as a mental exercise, the practice of translation is the best training for the attainment of that mastery of language and felicity of diction which are the sources of the highest oratory, and which are requisite for the possession of a graceful and persuasive eloquence. By rendering ourselves the faithful interpreters of the thoughts and feelings of others, we are rewarded with the acquisition of greater readiness and facility in correctly expressing our own; as he who has best learned to execute the orders of a commander becomes himself best qualified to command.

In the earliest periods of civilization, translators were the agents for propagating knowledge from nation to nation, and the value of their labors has been inestimable; but, in the present age, when so many different languages have become the depositories of the vast treasures of literature and of science which have been accumulating for centuries, the utility of accurate translations has greatly increased, and it has become a more important object to attain perfection in the art.”

Language for Profit

More firms Turn To Translation Experts To Avoid Costly, Embarrassing Mistakes

from an article in the Wall Street Journal, Jan. 13, 1977

General Motors was puzzled by the lack of enthusiasm the introduction of its Chevrolet Nova automobile aroused among its Puerto Rican dealers. The reason, it turned out, was simple: Nova means star in Spanish, but when spoken it sounds like “no va”, which means “it doesn’t go.” The company quickly changed the car’s name to “Caribe” and it sold nicely..

Similarly, Parker Pen Company once blitzed Latin America with a campaign that inadvertently maintained that a new ink would help prevent unwanted pregnancies.

These aren’t the only companies to learn the closer relationship between phraseology and profitability. With foreign trade growing increasingly significant to firms, foreign language—especially complex, legal, technical, and financial terminology–also comes more into play. In addition, companies are realizing the importance of linguistic nuance in directing advertising toward non-English-speaking Americans, as well as foreigners.

Translation of Whole Volumes

The result has been an explosion in demand for business and technical translation, a complex task whose practitioners range from individual freelancers to some sizable specialist firms. A few of the larger services in New York and in California report sevenfold to tenfold increases in their business over the past six years.

Heavy spending on development by Middle Eastern countries and detente with the Soviets have stimulated much of the growth. Control Data Corp., for instance, needed little or no Russian translation five years ago because it didn’t sell computers there. Now it has made big sales to the Russians, has more pending and is a major customer of a large translation agency. “Now we require translation of whole volumes of text, and this is just the beginning of our growth,” a Control Data official says.

Another reason for the sharp increase in the importance of translation: Errors can sometimes be tragic. At one construction site in the Middle East, a worker was killed when a load of cement fell on him from a cement mixer. The accident was attributed to the translated operating manual for the mixer, which mistakenly said a lever should be pulled right, rather than left, according to the files of one translation service. Bad translations have also been blamed for structure collapses at two construction sites in the Middle East, the translation firm says.

Fortunately, most goofs are simply embarrassing failures to consider meanings or word nuances in a foreign tongue. For example, Otis Engineering Co. once raised Russian eyebrows with a poster at a Moscow trade show promising that its oil well completion equipment was just dandy for improving a person’s sex life. Similarly, a Venezuelan ad for a U.S.-made auto battery once slipped on a literal translation: It came out describing the battery as “highly overrated.”

Watching Illustrations

Even illustrations have to be watched; a picture that offends cultural or national sensibilities can mar otherwise accurate translations. McDonnell Douglas Corporation, for example, produced an aircraft brochure for potential customers in India depicting some turbaned men. “It was politely pointed out to us that the turbans were distinctly Pakistani Moslem,” a company spokesman says. The artist had copied the picture from an old National Geographic magazine.

The best defense against error, everyone seems to agree, is a translator who knows the current idiomatic use of the language, knows the culture of the country, has an intuitive knack for recreating American concepts in a foreign tongue, and understands the technical area in which he is working. This latter point is particularly important since translators may also find it necessary to coin new words to describe highly technical matters in a language with no equivalent term. “Electronic pulse” in Farsi, for example, translates as broken wave”.

The cost of a major translation job can be stiff. One of the larger agencies charged Hughes Aircraft Co. $375,000 to translate nearly two million words of specifications for French, German and English weapons into the languages of those countries. More typical jobs, such as a major sales presentation or a lengthy technical report, might cost a company $25,000 to $40,000 at the larger translation firms. And business is booming.

Interpreter Services at San Francisco General Hospital

by Debra Wilson

If the example of San Francisco General Hospital is any indication, the city’s many non-English speaking medical patients may soon better understand the treatments and medications involved in their health care during their stay in local hospitals. Arising from a difficulty on the part of hospital personnel to communicate with patients who speak only Spanish, Cantonese, Vietnamese and various other languages, “the officials of the San Francisco General Hospital applied for and received federal funds through the mayor’s office to train interpreters in the city’s languages and in medical terminology”, according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle of May 16, 1978.

Twenty-seven men and women were trained for this program, in which they are assigned to the various hospital units depending upon the language needs at that particular time. In addition, the interpreters remain on an on-call basis for all other units should the need for their particular language arise elsewhere. Though they are non-medical, the interpreters participate in some aspects of patient care such as grooming, taking vital statistics, and, assisting in light daily exercise. In spite of the fact that the program will be financed only until September through the mayor’s Office of Employment and Training, there is still hope among hospital officials that the funding will continue for at least one year.

Summary of March 4 Meeting

Between 60 and 70 people attended the first formal meeting of the Northern California Translators Association at the Chinatown Holiday Inn in San Francisco. Tom Bauman chaired the meeting and introduced the NCTA as a group that has developed as a result of the efforts of a few fellow translators to consult one another on professional matters. This small group felt the need to expand in order to obtain the assistance of those with diverse experiences in the translation field.

It was established that the NCTA would not serve as an employment agency, nor would it unionize in order to establish set prices for translating. The formation of NCTA is basically to provide a forum for information exchange between local translators. Through specific language groups, NCTA members will have the opportunity to address the immediate and local concerns of their own technical and cultural interest areas. All those present were invited to contact the coordinator of their language interest group for activities suggestions.


The Germanic Languages Group, under the direction of Greg Eichler, met informally at the March 4 meeting. General information brochures on various subjects, made available by the Royal Consulate of the Netherlands and the General Consulate of the Federal Republic of Germany, were distributed to those interested. Formats for future meetings were discussed; a consensus indicated an interest in bimonthly meetings to be held in San Francisco (possibly at SF State), each meeting to be divided into an instructional period and a convivial, interpersonal session. Suggested resource materials included films, books, and pamphlets (from the Goethe Institute and the various consulates) and possible simultaneous interpretation demonstrations.

During the workshop period of the May 20th meeting, films provided by the Goethe Institute and dealing with current topics in science and technology will be presented.


The Spanish/Portuguese workshop at the March 4 meeting, headed by Deolinda Adao, was mainly of an introductory and get-acquainted nature. A few points of common interest were discussed, and a short bibliography of available resource material was complied. Anyone requesting material from this new resource library, or with information of interest to add to it, should contact Deolinda. Planned for the May 20th workshop session is a discussion and comparison of translations (included as an insert with this newsletter) to be done by group members and brought to the general meeting. Deolinda stresses that this exercise is of course not to determine who is the best translator, but rather to exchange knowledge, opinions, and styles.


Twenty-one members have already been counted as part of this fast-growing group, headed by Mme. Helene Riddle. Specific areas of member interest include geology, magic and bee-keeping as well as the more conventional fields. A workshop session is planned in conjunction with the May 20th meeting, at which time a list of group members will be issued in addition to the presentation of a general program of activities.

Mme. Riddle has already contacted several businesses and agencies in the area and has received encouraging responses to her inquiries concerning speakers, documentation, visits to facilities, etc. An article concerning NCTA (and specifically the French group) will appear in an upcoming issue of Le Californien, the area’s biweekly French newspaper. Marie Galanti, Director of Le Californien, has also expressed her support of our group and is willing to provide us with suggestions, ideas and information. Looks like we’re off to a good start. A bientot.