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    September 14, 2007

     Funny ha ha

    The expert Language Log blog reports, with scanned proof, these instructions on electronic equipment from China:

    Packing box that open the commutation machine, an inside includes the following contents: ....- for glue the sex rubber mat (be applicable to 16/24 give cones change the machine).
    The Ethernet switch tool ... can is current the customer 10/100Mbps a work a function for linking a fast ether lord fucking net ascending, suiting different demand in various situations, can to a large extent increasing network with dependable.
    (Sex is obviously type. Professor Victor Mair explains that the common Chinglish fuck comes from the root GAN, root roughly meaning push; the fourth tone can indeed mean fuck. There may be a bad machine translation program around.)

    Hilarious, isn't it.

    Wait a minute.

    The equipment in question is a router, the basic switching node of the information society. The model in question looks like a small one, the sort you would install in an office or large house - or perhaps in a police station, water treatment plant, jail, toxic waste incinerator, or pharmaceutical warehouse. Routers are expected to run reliably and unattended. If they fail they cause a lot of inconvenience - or possibly much more.

    The importer is Cisco, a huge and very profitable corporation specialising in this sort of gear. Their name was I presume stamped on on the box - but they obviously didn't open it to check. What else, you wonder, did they miss? Faced with stuff we can't check ourselves, consumers have to go by what they can. In this case, dud manual, so dud product: falsus in unum, falsus in omnia (one lie discredits a witness). The right policy for the consumer is to return the product as defective.

    I worked for 30 years for an international organisation, the Council of Europe. We may have produced some stupid stuff over the years, but never that badly translated. IGOs spend fortunes on qualified translators and interpreters because they know it's important. When they do make linguistic mistakes, they are of a different order of nuance. The most famous one is in UN Security Council resolution 242 of 1967 which in English calls for

    Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict,
    in French for
    Retrait des forces armées israéliennes des territoires occupés lors du récent conflit,
    i.e from the occupied territories. I suspect a fudge by diplomats in late-night negotiations rather than a mistake by translators. Of course, multilingualism has also given a particular flavour to international bureaucratic idiolects, as in the European Union's use of acquis as a routine English term, but that's not an issue of translation.

    For Cisco's benefit, let me nail up four theses on translation to the blog door.

    1. The manual is part of the product, for anything more complex than a monkey wrench. A defective manual implies a defective product.
    2. All translated published documents must be signed off on, and preferably translated, by a native speaker. It's practically impossible to translate out of one's native tongue to the highest standards. It is also very difficult to revise a poor translation to a high standard, but you can at least strip out the plain mistakes.
    3. Translation is difficult, needs high professional skills - equivalent to those of an engineer -, and so costs money.
    4. No machine translation should ever be published without human review.

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