Translation variation

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For the past week, I've been in Paris attending JEP-TALN-RECITAL 2016 ("31ème Journées d’Études sur la Parole — 23ème Conférence sur le Traitement Automatique des Langues Naturelles  — 18ème Rencontre des Étudiants Chercheurs en Informatique pour le Traitement Automatique des Langues). This event certainly takes the prize for the longest acronym of any conference I've ever attended.

Attending a francophone conference gave me a chance to practice what remains of my high-school French, and the content was worthwhile as well — I heard many interesting papers and saw many interesting posters, about which more later. I haven't posted much during the past week because the internet at the conference site was badly overloaded, and the situation at my hotel was not much better. But now at CDG waiting for my flight there's decent connectivity, so here's a little something about signage translation.

Versions of the sign pictured below were all over the place in the hotel — this one was in the elevator, but there were larger versions on stands in the lobby, on the wall in the breakfast room, and so on:

The first thing that caught my attention about this sign was the choice of languages involved: after French, we get English, Spanish, and Portuguese. No German. And no Chinese, although there were plenty of Chinese-speaking people staying in the hotel.

And then there's the variation in content. The Spanish version is the plainest and most straightforward:

No deje su equipaje sin vigilancia en el lobby.
"Don't leave your luggage unattended in the lobby."

The French version, which was presumably the original, adds a (rather oddly worded) introductory clause of justification, and softens the command with "veuillez":

Pour éviter les tentations d'actes malveillants, veuillez ne pas laisser vos bagages dans le hall sans surveillance.
"To avoid [literally] the temptations of malicious acts, please don't leave your luggage unattended in the lobby."

Does this difference mean that Spaniards are more plain-spoken and less polite than French people are? Or at least that French signage is typically more flowery? I doubt it — presumably it just means that the Spanish translator who was handed this task at the translation bureau decided to go to the heart of the matter.

The English version follows the French fairly closely, except that it leaves out the temptations and just asks us to avoid "any fraudulent acts":

T0 avoid any fraudulent act, please do not leave your luggage unattended in the lobby.

The French "actes malveillants" is an odd way to put it, since as far as I can tell, malveillant just means "malicious" — thus Larousse gives the glosses

Qui est animé de mauvais sentiments à l'égard d'autrui : Un esprit malveillant.
Qui dénote la volonté de nuire : L'intention malveillante a été prouvée.

But the people who steal luggage from hotel lobbies are presumably not mainly motivated by bad feelings for others, or by the intention of causing harm, but rather by the desire to get valuables they can exchange for money. The English version "fraudulent acts" is also a bit odd, since the core meaning of fraud has to do with deceptive interaction (M-W defines fraudulent as "done to trick someone for the purpose of getting something valuable"), whereas stealing unattended luggage is not so much fraud as just plain theft.

The Portuguese translation is more accurate in this respect:

Afim de evitar atos de malfeitores, queiram por favor não deixar suas bagagens sem vigilância.
"To avoid [literally] acts of criminals, please don't leave your luggage unattended."

This is way more discussion than this simple sign really warrants — all of the translations make it clear enough that you shouldn't leave your stuff unattended. But I've often idly noticed the odd inconsistencies among multiple translations, and after seeing this particular set of subtly different versions several times a day for a week, I decided to take a picture and share it with you.





  1. Jim Breen said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 5:00 am

    Years ago we noticed the lack of German translations on signs around Paris, and asked a French friend if there was a reason. She waved her hands and said: "Pfff. They can all read the English!".

  2. AndrewD said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 5:03 am

    The surprising thing is that the signs did not include the normal British phrase,"Unattended luggage may be removed by the Security Forces and destroyed". This has been common since the Troubles and recent events in Paris suggest to me that a similar phrase should be expected

    [(myl) I don't think that the signs are primarily anti-terrorist — the ones in the lobby were accompanied by notices explaining that thefts are common in the area, and that people should also be careful about parking a purse or backpack under the table at a cafe, or leaving a wallet or a passport in the pocket of a jacket on the back of a chair even while sitting in it, etc.]

  3. Mr Punch said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 5:51 am

    The French have been pretending to be buddy-buddy with the Germans for 60 years or more, but sometimes the "we have always been at peace with Eastasia" line wears thin. The current crisis of Europe is occurring just as direct memory of WWII and Nazi occupation is fading out.

  4. Diane Brooks said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 5:56 am

    I was sitting in a waiting room lobby in a large outpatient clinic and noticed many required signs informing patients of their rights. There were messages in English and Spanish. The difficulty I saw was a vagrant disrespect of those who knew only Spanish and could therefore not compare the meanings compared to each other. The one in English went into specific rights for the patients. The sign in Spanish, on the same plaque, stated if the person had questions they should consult the information desk.

  5. Charles Antaki said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 8:25 am

    Expanding AndrewD's point – I wonder if the French original might not have in mind the truly malevolent acts of terrorism, choosing not to spell such a worry out in the supposedly comforting environment of a plush hotel. Doesn't explain the silence on the matter of (most of) the other versions, unless here the commercial angle has reasserted itself.

  6. Francis Boyle said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 9:40 am

    My local transit system uses the euphemistic but the nonetheless clear "security reasons". It's clear that the worry is bombs not theft since the messages appeared about the same time as all rubbish bins were removed from the system.

  7. Remi Camus said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 10:08 am

    Stealing is indeed what is called Fr. "acte malveillant", nothing odd here.
    Fr. "tentation" vs "tentative" would be worth commenting on…

  8. Mara K said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 10:50 am

    To paraphrase Agents of SHIELD, it looks like someone really wanted this conference to have "recital" in the name.

  9. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 11:35 am

    So the whole Bernie Madoff mess could have been avoided if we'd all just kept better track of our luggage?

    Also, my knowledge of Portuguese is next to nil, but malfeitores seems like it's just begging to be translated as malefactors.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 2:21 pm

    I think it may well be true that in non-specialist modern English, it would be plausible (although you'd need a context where it wasn't too weird a word in terms of register) to call criminals of the luggage-stealing variety "malefactors" but much less plausible to call them "malevolent." This however may be because the two Latinate words have in English (as Latin etymologies have become more opaque over the centuries) drifted out of their original parallelism which *might* (or might not) have remained more closely parallel in a Romance language. But if you are prosecuting even a luggage thief in an Anglophone legal system you typically have to prove a wrongful intent as well as a wrongful act (e.g. someone who picked up your luggage and carried it away under the mistaken impression it was theirs would not be guilty of larceny, because the act would be the same but the requisite intent would have been lacking), even if "malevolence" it not the current legalese jargon for that wrongful intent.

  11. Vítor De Araújo said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 4:55 pm

    What amused me about the Portuguese translation is the use of "queiram por favor não deixar" [= please want not to leave]. Maybe it's more common in European Portuguese than my native Brazilian variety, but I think I had never seen this usage of "querer" (to want) with a negative complement.

  12. Mark Meckes said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 5:07 pm

    I can't comment on the Spanish or Portuguese, but the French certainly looks to me like typical French signage. I find all the "veulliez"s and introductory clauses of justification rather charming, personally.

  13. Thomas Rees said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 5:56 pm

    No one has yet remarked on “le hall” and “el lobby”. Apparently “lobby” in French only means “pressure group” whilst in Spanish it means “vestibule” as well.

  14. Michael Watts said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 8:02 pm

    I was about to remark on "le hall". Specifically, can someone explain why it's "le hall" and not "l'hall"?

  15. Mark Meckes said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 8:53 pm

    @Michael Watts: It's an aspirated h.

  16. Alyssa said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 8:57 pm

    Michael Watts — French makes a (very subtle) distinction between two types of H: the "h aspiré" and the "h muet". Neither are actually pronounced, but the former behaves like a consonant in that it prevents contractions and liaisons. Generally loanwords with [h] in the original get the "h aspiré".

  17. Alyssa said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 9:14 pm

    Even ignoring the odd word choice of "fraudulent", I'm not sure that English translation works for me. "To avoid any fraudulent acts, do X" implies that unless the subject of the sentence does X, they risk committing a fraudulent act. I don't think you can use this phrasing to imply that you risk *someone else* committing a fraudulent act.

    The direct translation of the French is even less ambiguous: "To avoid the temptations of malicious acts, do X" can only mean that the subject should do X to prevent being tempted themselves. Does this work better in French?

  18. D.O. said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 10:35 pm

    You can shorten the triple-conference name by making it a double-acronym (or initialism, but who cares) JTR. Probably, not a unique occurence, but rare.

  19. D.O. said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 10:43 pm

    And I want to comment on reflection in the sign of Prof. Liberman making the shot. At first, I thought it was a background depiction of a person prepared to commit an act malveillant.

  20. BenHemmens said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 6:03 am

    My first reaction was to do as the Spanish version does, but actually I suppose a conventional English rendering would be »For security reasons, do not leave bags unattended in the foyer.«

    This does not quite live up to the principle described in Translation Quality Assessment by Juliane House (earlier editions have a longer version of this section, Chapter 3 in, in which we tend to leave the explanations out in English and come to what we want the reader to do on not to do. But I think it's true that we try to keep that bit short. German signs often go to greater lengths in the way of justification. Though with all of these pragmatic issues my personal tentation is to suggest that the more direct and reader-oriented approach would actually work better in German, too. It may just be that you can take me out of the anglophone world but you can't take the anglophone world out of me.

  21. Keith said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 7:27 am

    This is very typical of the wording on French signs.
    Acte de malveillance and acte malveillant are widely used to mean "criminal act" such as theft or, even more frequently, vandalism.
    Veuillez is the second person plural form of the verb vouloir, "to want", in the subjunctive voice, used as an imperative, and is very typical of French officialese.

    As for the Portuguese translation being so much more wordy and closer to the French original than the French: even though we might be forgiven for imagining that Spanish and Portuguese are more closely related than French and either of those two Iberian languages, I suspect that the hotel has a number of employees who are perfectly bilingual in French and Portuguese, and who made a conscious effort to stay close to the original wording. Whereas the translations into other languages were done at rather more than arm's length.

  22. J.D. said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 7:44 am

    As others pointed out, "actes malveillants" is commonly used in France to refer to a wide range of criminal offences, such as larceny, robbery, and arson. The TLFi dictionary (Trésor de la langue française informatisé) gives "Intention, volonté de nuire; acte criminel" for "malveillance".

    But it is also used to refer to "malicious acts".

  23. Spectator said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 7:54 am

    As a french, I can say that the wording is indeed a bit old-fashioned. A more modern one would not include "les tentations" – which supposes that leaving your luggages alone would tempt malefactors. Otherwise, it's just a very polite phrasing that I would like to see more often.

    Hall is a quite interesting word in french. It's what we call an "anglicisme", and it is pronounced "ol" (the h is not pronounced, but there is a hiatus), and not [ɒɫ], like in Québec.

    By experience, the most common signage languages in France are English, German, Spanish and Italian. I've almost never seen Portuguese. But I live in northern France, so the situation might be different in the south.

  24. Rodger C said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 11:48 am

    "To avoid the temptations of acts of Malvolio …" Watch out for cross-gartered loiterers.

  25. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 5:03 pm

    The use of veuillez in imperatives is not limited to officialese. Where an anglophone will say "Come with me," a francophone will say Veuillez m'accompagner. And the traditional sign-off in letters is something like Veuillez agréer, cher Monsieur, mes sentiments les plus distingués.

  26. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 5:15 pm

    I meant "come with me, please."

  27. David Marjanović said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 5:39 pm

    German signs often go to greater lengths in the way of justification.

    I'm not sure if that's true; but if it is, it makes sense – simply telling people what to do has already been tried, and didn't work out that well, did it.

  28. Keith said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 1:43 am

    @Spectator, JEP-TALN-RECITAL 2016 was held in Paris. Even seen from Roubaix or Lille, I doubt that you'd really consider that the midi.

    @Cory, the finishing phrase at the end of a formal letter in French is a fossil that I consider akin to officialese. Look in the back of the Collins Robert French-English dictionary, and you'll find a whole collection of them (for when a man writes to a woman, for when a woman writes to a man, etc), each with its little peculiarities.

  29. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 11:02 am

    Keith: I am not Cory, and in my day I have personally received quite a few letters from fellow academics in France with that kind of sign-off.

  30. David Marjanović said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 5:14 pm

    Within the last 15 years, these French formulas have been pretty much replaced by Sincèrement and Cordialement.

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