Only So Many To Go Around


This summer, I attended a 3-day workshop to make a RepRap, that is to say a 3D printer. We had the pleasure of meeting Adrian Bowler, the original inventor of the RepRap, and Josef Prusa, who designed the machine we built.
Adrian Bowler explained to us how he came to coin the term RepRap: he was looking for something short, simple and descriptive, like most business or product designers. He settled on Replicating Rapid Protoype and shortened it to RepRap, thinking it was a previously unused term… And as it turned out, he was wrong. Reprap is a term used in oceanography, and as it turns out, oceanographers are having a much harder time of it googling the term now, or providing visibility for their research.

Such are the challenges awaiting those who seek to name a brand or a product, and expanding internationally comes with its own challenges. This is when the services of translators might also come into play: they can be used as consultants to say if the name is already taken in a specific country, if it means something in the target language and if yes, what that means. For instance, Lush’s henna Caca rouge and Caca marron may well be a deliberate choice, and one suited to their target customers, but it would take a French-, Italian- or Spanish-speaking person a hefty dose of irony and trust for the brand to apply « poo » on their hair!

To borrow a conclusion from the great Terry Pratchett, as told by officer Carrot in The Fifth Elephant, “When you think about it, there are so many syllables to go around.”


Cet été, j’ai participé pendant trois jours à un atelier de fabrication d’une RepRap, c’est-à-dire d’une imprimante en trois dimensions. Nous avons eu le plaisir de rencontrer Adrian Bowler, l’inventeur de la RepRap, ainsi que Josef Prusa, qui a conçu le modèle que nous avons construit.
Adrian Bowler nous a expliqué comment il avait choisi d’employer le terme de RepRap : il cherchait un nom court, simple et clair, comme la plupart des concepteurs de produits et d’entreprises. Son choix s’est finalement porté sur Rapid Replicating Prototype (Prototype de reproduction rapide), qu’il a abrégé en RepRap, pensant que personne n’avait utilisé le terme jusque-là… Il s’est avéré qu’il avait tort. On utilise le terme de RepRap en océanographie, et les océanographes ont désormais beaucoup plus de mal à avoir des résultats de recherche pertinents quand ils saisissent le terme sur Google, ou à donner de la visibilité à leurs recherches.

Tels sont les problèmes qui attendent ceux qui cherchent un nom de marque ou de produit, et l’expansion internationale apporte son propre lot de difficultés. C’est là, aussi, que des traducteurs peuvent apporter leurs services : ils peuvent servir de consultants pour dire si le nom est déjà pris dans un pays particulier, s’il signifie quelque chose dans le langage cible et si oui, quoi. Par exemple, les hennés de Lush dénommés Caca rouge et Caca marron ont pu faire l’objet d’un choix délibéré, s’appliquant parfaitement à leur cible, mais des Italiens, des Français ou des Espagnols auraient besoin d’une bonne dose de second degré et de confiance envers la marque pour s’en mettre sur les cheveux !

Pour finir, citons l’incomparable Terry Pratchett, qui fait dire à son officier Carrot dans Le cinquième éléphant que « quand on y pense, il n’y a pas tant de syllabes que ça. »


Ho participato quest’estate, durante tre giorni, a un gruppo di fabbricazione di una RepRap, in oltre parole una stampante in tre dimenzioni. Abbiamo avuto il piacere d’incontrare qui Adrian Bowler, il creatore della RepRap, e Josef Prusa, il concettore del modello che abbiamo costruito. Adrian Bowler ci ha spiegato come è venuto a sceltere il nome di RepRap : cercava une nome breve, semplice e illustrativo, come la grande parte dei concettori di produtti e di ditte. Ha finalmente deciso di usare Rapid Replicating Prototype, abbreviato in RepRap, pensando che nessuno l’abbia utilisato. Se sbagliava… La parola è utilisata nell’oceanografia, e adesso gli oceanografi tengono difficoltà nel cercare il loro reprap su Google o a dare visibilità alle lore ricerche.

Tali son i problemi di cui che cercano un nome per la loro marchia o il loro prodotto. L’expanzione internationale contiene anche le sue difficoltà. Traduttori possono anche essere utili qua : possono essere cosultanti e dire se il nome sta già preso in un paese, si significa qualche cosa e cose evoca. Per esempio, i henne di Lush che si chiamano Caca rouge e Caca marron furono magari deliberamente scelti, però gli Italiani, Francesi o Spagnoli che le utilizzarono avrono una bella dosa di ironia e di confidenza per il marchio quando se le metterono sui capelli!

La conclusione sarà del grande Terry Pratchett, che fa dire a su officier Carrot in The Fifth Elephant che “quando se ne pensa, non ci sono tante sillabe da utilizzare.”

“You’ve just missed a job opportunity”

The young man looked sincerely disappointed as he told me this. We were drinking a pint with other people after having danced our hearts out at the Beiaard bal (a nice opportunity to practise Dutch and learn folk dances at the same time). We had started talking; he was looking for a translator. To his surprise, I, a freelancer, turned down an opportunity to work for him, a direct client.

He wanted a Dutch to English translation. In the biomedical field. For a text he’d written.

He had just obtained his PhD, just to give an idea of his level.

Never have I been so relieved to turn down a job opportunity.

He then complained that previous translations he had got were lousy.

« This is not supposed to happen » I said. « Translators are supposed to be knowledgeable about their field. »

« Yes, but how can you choose a translator when all you have is a phone book and a list of names? » He replied.

« Many translators have websites, where they list their specific skills and language pairs. » I said « And there is a new network called The Research Cooperative designed to bring researchers and translators together. You need a specialised translator, and you might just find the right one here. »

It always surprises me how little people know about translation and freelancing . Informing them offers mutual benefits: first, for you as a translator — even if they are not looking for someone with your skillset you come across as helpful, and they might pass on your name to somebody else — but mostly for them. It helps them select the right LSP.


Last week, I came across the phrase ‘win-win’ in a document.

It instantly reminded me of the last presidential elections in France, more particularly the defeated candidate Ségolène Royal and the first time she had used « gagnant-gagnant » in a speech. It was a literal translation. It was a clumsy translation. And she got mercilessly deriled for it.

Journalists were the first to pick it up and to sneer; then the public read about it or heard it and jeered; and people, repeating the phrase, squeaked. In Parisian dinner-parties, when you mentioned the election, someone would say « gagnant-gagnant » and everybody would scoff.

Yes, it was not an appropriate choice of words. But the worst is, a few days later people started to mention « gagnant-gagnant » without laughing, using it almost naturally, because they had got used to it.

Luckily, the fad didn’t last.

Therefore, after this cautionary reminder of what should not be done, I focused on the text again and wrote, « une solution qui profite à tout le monde… ».

The famous & infamous ‘you’

A few years ago, when I was in my first years of English studies in college, one of my lecturers was this bright American PhD student. She knew she was bright; she was also beautiful and she happened to be aware of that fact, too. Combine this with her young age, barely a few years older than the rest or even younger in some cases, and you will understand why most people in the class did not like her.

“She’s so pretentious,” students would sniff “and have you noticed the way she speaks, too ? ‘Not your average novel’, ‘your expectations’, ‘you’, ‘you’, ‘you’! As if she were above us.”

Indeed, when this lecturer wanted to refer to something generic, she used ‘you’, as Americans do. Yet to untrained French ears, who were still getting used to having all of their classes delivered in English, ‘you’ was one more mark of arrogance; one more way of setting herself apart from the rest.

Use of the second person is so much less frequent in French that a translator needs to be careful when dealing a source text containing ‘you’. One does not want to risk sounding arrogant or even peremptory: using ‘you’ may feel like the author is giving orders to the reader. Yet is it always so?

Marketing copy can and does use the second person. The reader is directly engaged in the copy’s message and this is a way to hook their attention and to convey the point that the company is truly user-focused. Yet there is a fine line that must not be crossed, here again, between engaging the reader and pushing the goods too aggressively in their face (both copywriters and translators take it into account).

Self-help & personal development texts, if they use the second person, must be especially careful not to sound bossy : nobody wants to sound like a new-age scammer, not even new-age scammers themselves.

As for literary texts, if you find one where the narrator uses ‘you’, it is either a classical novel addressing the reader (as in ‘Reader – I married him’, Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre) or used as an experimental technique (as in Michel Butor’s La modification or the titles of the slightly more mainstream Guillaume Musso).

To decide whether to keep every use of the second person in the target text is thus to analyse the source text to determine if ‘you’ points out to a shared experience (in which case ‘nous’ or ‘on’ for instance, would be used) or if it is really meant to address the reader only.

Communication: a linguistic ability?

The following link leads to a scientific experiment to determine whether communication has to do with linguistic skills:

The gist is in the last sentence:

« We conclude that the generation of communicative utterances relies on a neurocognitive system that is involved in understanding intentions of others, and that is distinct from the language system. »

Something worthwhile to remember when translating. Translation is communication, spreading the word.