I am vicariously proud: Judy Jenner, the intrepid veep of (subliminal advertising alert) NITA, is quoted in the Wall Street Journal’s portrait of the translation and interpreter professions. And so I wanted to jump into the fray to add my two cents worth. Unsurprisingly, registration is a prerequisite for that, so I went ahead and typed in the obligatory information, and expectantly hit the “Submit” button.

Unfortunately, and at that point, I was mercilessly thrown back. Apparently, my name is unpalatable for the delicate taste of the WSJ’s ruthlessly monocultural website. A circumstance which, in light of the aforementioned article, just begs for a barrel of puns, but still…

Isn’t there something to be said for a more educated approach to programming automated responses to unexpected user input, instead of suggesting what the following token of linguistic intolerance suggests?

First name contains invalid characters. Last name contains invalid characters.

Now, I’m almost giddy I wasn’t accused of having a name comprising illegal characters but that’s only by a whisker. Being informed of having a name with crippled characters isn’t much of an improvement, I reckon. And yet here I am, thinking that I use the same Latin alphabet… Oh well.

Meanwhile I trust that, soon enough, machines will follow a more advanced social behavioral model; it shouldn’t take too long before the realization sinks in that yes, embracing globalization really means more than merely showing enthusiasm over the possible profits that can come along with a willingness to tolerate funny speaking folks, e.g. by allotting a budget to outsource the task of dealing with said people. Even when they have weird names crippled by flawed and/or invalid characters…

The thing is, the technological barriers that purportedly stand in the way of “allowing” non-standard names – like mine – are actually rooted in the 19th century and have gone into the night of obsolescence at least a decade or so ago. I believe it’s outright laughable that the arcane teletype and typewriter are used – to this day, as illustrated by my anecdotal experience – as an excuse to arbitrarily impose an “acceptable” spelling, of something as personally defining as a name. Somehow I suspect that brand names are treated with greater circumspection by this newspaper in question…

And yet, I can only faintly imagine the systematic frustration experienced by people who write using multi-byte scripts

A Curious Christmas

As my deplorable photographic skills illustrate below, Coca-Cola keeps the merry tradition going of advertising its product with a well-wishing Santa. Although nowadays, it’s arguably better to speak of a merry Santa plainly announcing that those days are here again – you know: those marking the end of the year, without getting into an uncomfortable commitment to either a happy holiday, a merry Christmas, a joyful Festivus or whatnot. To wit:

Merry Cokemas
Merry Cokemas

So in English we are approaching tout court Holiday 2009. Oh well.

Now, let’s see the Spanish version, conveniently printed on the other side of the very same bottle:

Feliz Navidad
Feliz Navidad

Here an unapologetic Santa wishes in Spanish Merry Christmas: Feliz Navidad. No ifs or buts.

Isn’t it interesting that an apparently pressing reason to culturally neutralize a reference to Christmas in the English version doesn’t – pardon the pun – translate all that well into Spanish?

What, don’t Spanish speakers appreciate Seinfeld’s legendary demand for recognition of Festivus? Is an attempt at making a for purposes of commercial expediency politically correct statement in just one language – but not in another – really an expression of embraced PC sensitivity, or does it remind rather of cultural apartheid thinking? As in: the same fundamental objections of those who prefer not to be reminded of Christian symbols are, seemingly, valid enough in English, but not so much in Spanish… To be clear, it’s not the inclination by itself to tone down religious identifying symbolism, for whichever reason, that which piques my interest here; it’s the cross-linguistic inconsistency which I find, well… Curious. Because it does present a bit of a quandary for the translator.

Of course, from a marketing point of view one could explain it as an exponent of market segmentation. But that’s not to say that a given principle shouldn’t apply to the overall market. And it’s not so that there’s no parallel construct available in Spanish, either; a culturally neutralized wish of “Happy Holidays” in English can be perfectly well translated as felices fiestas in Spanish.

It’s an interesting instance of something that is a hard to classify phenomenon, as much as it is somewhat revealing: translation, adaptation and projection are, apparently, three distinct but sometimes also treacherously overlapping notions.

Either way: Joyeux Noël, Gelukkige Kerst, Buon Natale, Fröhliche Weihnachten, Feliz Natal, Feliz Navidad, and, above all:

Merry Christmas!