By Adriana Adarve – Owner of Adarve Translations & Donnamarie Leemann – Head of Marketing at Adarve Translations
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines “People” as a noun that means:
Persons composing a community, race or nation, as the English people or a warlike people; the persons belonging to a place or forming a company or class, etc.
That definition sounds simple enough, but it fails to tell the whole story. “People” means human beings, Homo sapiens sapiens like you and me. Male, female. Young, old. Able-bodied and able-minded, physically or mentally handicapped. Black, white, Asian, or mixed-race. Indigenous, immigrant, invader or despot. We’re all just “People,” and by definition we include all of the above.
Judging by how the word “people” is currently used in the international news media, what “people” is actually coming to mean is physically and mentally fit adult males. This past week the entire population of an obscure village that had around 100 inhabitants was kidnapped. The media reported the figure of “around 100 people” but went on to say that that number included women, children and the elderly.
The “people” who live in a typical village are men, women, children, the elderly and the infirm. I suppose that singling out the more vulnerable “people” in a news report is intended to add a fillip, an extra tug on the heart-strings of the people receiving the news, to increase the drama of the event and to give more emphasis to the reporting.
Yet when one reports on what happened to the entire population of the village in question, one has already included all of the people. There is a very subtle kind of discrimination and manipulation going on here. “People” were kidnapped. Singling out the women, children, elderly and infirm by saying that “People were kidnapped, including…” what the media is actually doing is singling out fit adult males, and leaving out the folks of lesser status—the women, children, elderly and infirm—from the news report.
When I learn of an atrocity committed against all the “People” of a village, I actually think of all the people. Male, female. Young, old. Able-bodied and able-minded, physically or mentally handicapped, of whatever race or orientation. I resent being told that the word “People” actually includes people other than fit adult males. Of course it does.
In a recent blog we highlighted the difference between and the misuse of the prefix “anti” (which means a rational dislike or aversion to something, as in anti-Semitism or anti-American) and the suffix “phobia” (which means an irrational dislike or aversion to something, as in arachnophobia or Islamophobia).
The incorrect usage of “anti” and “phobic” are obvious examples of the misuse of language. There are many more subtle examples, such as those that do not involve the misuse of words but the incorrect order in which words are used.
Take the case of a divorced woman whose ex-husband had visitation rights with their two year-old child. The father took the boy for a weekend and disappeared with the child—for four years. The father was eventually run to ground and the child was taken into the care of the appropriate authorities pending his return to his mother’s custody.
The news report (on CNN) said that the mother “Was finally hoping to be reunited with her child.” Stated that way, the implication was that the mother had not hoped for her son to be returned to her until after her ex was caught: she was finally hoping to be reunited, as if she hadn’t been hoping for those four long years.
In fact, the mother had been hoping, desperately, for the return of her child during those four interminable years. After her ex was caught and her child was in the process of being returned to her, she was hoping that her child would finally be returned to her. “Finally hoping to” and “Hoping to finally be” mean quite different things.
The BBC didn’t do much better when it reported on the recent BAFTA Awards, Britain’s answer to the Oscars. The news presenter started with the big winner, “The Theory of Everything,” a bio-pic about the life and work of Dr. Stephen Hawking. The presenter went on to say “The other evening’s awards were given to…” Hmm. The “other evening’s awards.” What other evening? Wasn’t he speaking of this evening, the evening that the BAFTA Awards were presented? What the chap should have said was, “The evening’s other awards went to…”
I can easily imagine that news presenter saying, “The BAFTA Award ceremony was attended by many people, including a number of women and a man who is grievously handicapped physically but who is a mental genius.” When speaking of “people” it is incumbent upon the speaker to not single out nor denigrate nor place a spurious extra value on vulnerable people, in what at first appears to be a compassionate position but which, upon closer examination, actually places more value on fit adult male “people.”
In one of his popular “Travis McGee” novels, the late John D. MacDonald made an acerbic comment about a news-reader who reported that a famous film star had found a “noodle” on her breast. She had actually discovered a nodule in her breast, as in a lump, as in breast cancer. MacDonald wrote about the gaff some 30 or 40 years ago, but we haven’t progressed very far since then. Whatever the implications of the nodule for the film star’s continued good health and beauty, the news-reader wasn’t using his noodle when he made his report.
In a report on the recent Academy Awards ceremony, a news presenter stated that Lady Gaga had performed a “melody” from the film “The Sound of Music.” Had Lady Gaga sung “Edelweiss” or “My Favorite Things,” she would have performed a “melody.” In fact, she sang a montage of favorite tunes from the much-loved musical: Lady Gaga sang a “medley.”
When we introduce subtle discrimination in to words such as “people,” when we misuse terms like “anti-” and “-phobia,” when we scramble word order as in “Finally hoping to” instead of “Hoping to finally,” when we confuse “noodles” and “nodules” and “melodies” and “medleys,” we not only debase the languages that we speak, we also interfere with the process of communication itself.
Here at Adarve Translations we are very conscious of linguistic distinctions, and of how missing or misusing the proper meaning of words, or the contexts in which we use words, or the order in which we use them, can skew the core message of a report.
These matters are subtle, are delicately nuanced and must be understood by the translator before an accurate rendering of a communication in one language can be properly expressed in another language. Computers can’t do it (yet). Someone who is bilingual but who is not attuned to these linguistic details can’t do it either.
It’s possible to get away with clumsy translations if you’re just trying to communicate with your new Finnish daughter-in-law or are booking a holiday in Costa Rica. If you need an accurate translation of a medical, dental, other technical or governmental documents or correspondence, you will require an outfit that can tell the difference between a “noodle” and a “nodule,” an organization that can handle technical complexities while still having an expert grasp on nuance.
All the best,
Donnamarie Leemann, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, & Adriana Adarve, Asheville, NC
About the Authors: Adriana Adarve is the owner of Adarve Translations and is fluent in three languages (English, Spanish & French), as well as pluri-cultural, multi-cultural, plurilingual and multilingual. Adriana has been the editor as well as a contributor to this article. Donnamarie Leemann is an artist and writer who has for many years contributed to the BBC and to many other public forums, and who collaborates at present with Adarve Translations as Head of Marketing.