A matter of taste

I had a rude awakening the other week. (No, not the neighbour’s daughter’s Sunday morning trombone practice again, or at least I hope that’s what that noise is.)

After my first half-dozen marketing translations for a new client won a warm reception, the seventh came back with an irate-sounding note. “Wrong tone of voice”. My attempt at elegant and sophisticated – we’re talking luxury yachts, by the way – should have been more edgy and “aggressive”. One of the brands in the portfolio had a different tone, but that hadn’t come across to me when the job was placed. Armed with full ToV guidelines, I was then able to amend the text to their satisfaction and my relief.

So, style is important, especially at the high end of the market. Wrong style = unusable.

Style is important to readers, too, of course. What would you rather cast your beadies over – a text that’s crisp, clear and ambiguity-free, that minimises your cognitive load, that flows and ebbs and even makes you smile (for all the right reasons)? Or a midden of rambly, jargon-laden guff? And writing style can be a serious business when the text is a safety-critical instruction manual or a social-services leaflet for vulnerable people, for example.

So if style is important to clients and readers, then it’s indispensable to writers, editors and translators. Effective writing can help us stand out in a crowded marketplace. At a time when the machines are encroaching on our patch, a mastery of style could even be termed a survival skill. As Spanish-to-English translator Gary Smith observes, “a human translator may opt to use a different sentence order and completely re-arrange a paragraph to make more logical sense in the target readers’ culture. Or they may chop up one or two gigantic, meandering sentences into smaller, more digestible phrases or join two or three short, stuttering sentences into a longer, flowing one. Such stylistic decisions are still the domain of the human translator”.

So far, so uncontroversial (I hope). Yet there’s a discordant note amid all this, and it comes from a surprising source – the Institute of Translaton and Interpreting (ITI) itself. How so?

Well, the ITI revamped its entry examination process in 2016, and a sterling job it did, too. There’s now an Assessor Handbook to ensure consistency and fairness and to guide the red-pen wielders as they do their duty. Great! But then there’s this: “Assessors must not mark the applicant on style, as this can be a matter of preference. If the assessor believes that there is a genuine error with the style of the translation, they should consider whether the errors fall under a different category, such as inappropriate register, inappropriate rewording, over-literalness or collocation error.”

Style can indeed be a matter of personal taste. But it goes much further than that, and we’ve seen how vital it can be. To debar assessors from even considering it is a leap too far. We need a way to include style in the scope of translation quality assessment, especially in the context of transcreation, where it’s crucial. Style is more than just taste and register and wording and collocations. It’s clarity and appropriateness; it’s a brand’s tone of voice; it’s that feeling, as a reader, of getting what the writer is saying – and enjoying the experience; it’s a sense of music and even poetry that elevates a text above the mundane and makes it sing, to paraphrase my estimable colleague Chris Durban. Indeed, “what is style but the effective use of words to engage the human mind?” (Steven Pinker). Like this:

“If you saw a man in a tux and black bow tie swagger on stage like an elegant pirate, and if when he opened his mouth you heard a little of your life in his voice, and if his swing numbers made you want to bounce and be happy and be young and carefree, and if when he sang ‘Try a little tenderness’ and got to the line about a woman’s wearing the same shabby dress it made you profoundly sad, and if years later you felt that his death made you a little less alive, you must have been watching this man who started as a saloon singer in Hoboken and went on to become the very definition of American popular music.” That was the caption (yes, the caption, and I’ve even shaved off 40 words to fit it in) to a photo of Frank Sinatra in the New Jersey Record, written by journalist Jeffrey Page.

Now there’s an example of style to aspire to – no bum notes there, that’s for sure. I’d be proud to have written that.

It’s time to make music. From the top, with feeling.