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Expletives, Catch Phrases, Slogans, Idioms, and Wordplay:

Why Translation-mediated Awareness Campaigns Fail to Communicate to Multilingual Communities bu Dr. Ali Darwish

“Garbage in, garbage out” was a catch phrase used in machine translation circles in the 1980s to emphasize the need for preparing the source text before processing it through the translation machine. While today’s machine or automated translation technologies have made great progress since those early days, they still churn out translations that are far from perfect. Just have a look at social media and Google Translate, for example, and their varying degrees of success across languages. Although this is not the point of the present article, the phrase serves as a reminder that whether it is automated translation or human translation, preparing the source text is essential, if not crucial, for the success of translations. In particular, translation-mediated government awareness campaigns fail to achieve their desired goals primarily because the source text is invariably written without paying too much attention to the idiosyncrasies of languages. Copywriters seem to be self-centred and focused on flexing their linguistic muscle regardless of whether their brilliant work is translatable or not. And the asinine insistence of those commissioning the translation on verbatim, word for word translations staggers belief. It goes to show how ignorant and naïve are those writing the original texts and those commissioning the translations. Yet we are surrounded and bombarded with such slogans and catch phrases. Have you ever seen an awareness or marketing campaign that did not have a slogan, a catch phrase, or the expletive “it” in it? “Just do it!”, “Coke Is It!”, “If you drink and drive, you are a bloody idiot,” and “The Toyota T-Cell. Nothing Comes Close”, to cite a few.

These slogans and catch phrases might sound clever and act as a shortcut to communicating the intended message in a condensed form like a pill, a vaccine, or an incantation. Remarkably effective, or is it? Let us examine some examples of the more recent slogans and catch phrases. But before we do that, what is a slogan and what is a catch phrase?

According to the English language dictionary, a slogan is a short easily remembered phrase, especially one used to advertise an idea or a product. A catch phrase is a word or phrase that is often repeated by, or becomes connected with, a particular organization, especially a political group.

Catch phrases are words that are in current use. They derive their associative meanings from the cultural and social environment in which they are produced. These associative meanings are specific to their culture and do not invoke the same images in non-native speakers of English who are not familiar with such catch phrases. The English language is famous for the use of catch phrases, witty phrases, and buzzwords and the tendency to use them in writing is strong as they are entertaining and illustrative. However, when using such rhetorical techniques in English to communicate with non-English speakers through translation, they present a problem of translatability and often fail to communicate the message in the target languages. Memorable catch phrases use techniques such as rhyming, alliteration, and parallelism to achieve maximum effect. Particularly because of these features, and other rhetorical techniques, such as anaphora[1], antithesis[2], and chiasmus[3], catch phrases fail to translate into other languages.

Now, let us have a closer look. Recently, a COVID-19 awareness campaign carried the following slogans.

The sooner we all do it, the sooner we go through it.

Apart from the expletive “it” that refers to two different things or states in this example, the use of anaphora, which is starting two or more phrases, sentences, or verses with the same words, “the sooner” in this instance, cannot be replicated in translation without loss of the anaphoric impact.

Staying Apart Keeps Us Together.

Using antithesis in this slogan (staying apart) and (keeps us together) does not lend itself to translation without again loss of effect of the rhetorical technique. In other words, insisting on translating these slogans verbatim defeats the purpose. Worse still, the translation may produce a completely different meaning or effect—hence, the complaints by the multicultural communities about such translations. Beside these features of slogans, the inconsistencies in most texts destined for translation are replicated in the translation. 

An old grandmother used to tell the story of a little boy who desperately wanted to make friends with the birds in the cornfield. One day, he stood in the middle of the cornfield with his arms wide open. But the birds would see him and fly away. In the blistering cold of winter, the boy froze to death with his arms stretched out. As he stood there freezing to death, he realized too late that he was making the wrong gesture. Like this boy, nations, governments, and businesses sometimes make the wrong gesture and end up communicating the wrong message across languages and through translation. This is primarily so because languages tend to be culturally informed and laden with regional idiosyncrasies.[4]  
One last example that may sound innocent and easy to translate is “social distancing”. This term originally referred to “the feeling a person has that his or her social position is relatively similar to or relatively different from the social position of someone else […]. Social distance may depend on such factors as differences in the size, ethnic origin, political status, social status of two groups…”.[5] Here, the potential of misunderstanding this term is real. This term which is laden with political undertones of social solidarity and power interplay, when translated into other languages, may create different perceptions in the target audience of the translations—perceptions not intended in the original message. To read the full article visit https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/expletives-catch-phrases-slogans-idioms-wordplay-why-fail-ali-darwish/?trackingId=HayOhS%2FlRjux7fZraFpj8g%3D%3D 


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