Translating jargon: avoiding the trap in your own copy

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Jargon. The sound of that word makes me reach for a Tums. Jargon, as in “meaningless-gibberish-that-sounds-like-a-money-wrote-it.”

No, I am not referring to precise terminology used by a specific group of people and only occasionally understood by those outside the group. If, for example, you are writing or translating a medical text for an audience of specialists, you should be writing perorbital hæmatoma and not the plain English ‘black eye’ or the French layman’s ‘œil au beurre noir’.

I am talking about my pet peeve (or one of them, rather), the use of jargon that has become as prevalent as driver incivility.

The French have a more imaginative way of calling it: langue de bois or wooden tongue, that is to say the ability to expound at length, striving to sound intellectual/intelligent/in the know (pick one) without having to provide any real content. Listen to public officials’ speeches or the talking heads on news programs and you’ll see what I mean.

Often, the author of a text is unaware of its jargon density ratio.

As a translator, what do you do when your jargon-meter goes into the red zone? Do you remain faithful to the source text or do you strive to improve it? Savvy clients will want copy best suited to their target audience and objectives. Open-minded clients might even revise their source text for clarity or ask you to do so.

Jargonspeak can be contagious. Like a behavioral tick, you may not always be 100% aware jargon has slipped into your own writing. And when on a tight deadline, chances are you’ll focus your final review on spelling, grammar, and typography rather than on clarity of style (you’ve already spent a lot of time on that, right?)

Here are some free tools that can help you get rid of the last bit of drivel in your copy.

  • Bullfighter, software originally developed by Deloitte that works as a plug-in in MS Word and PowerPoint. Its “Bull Composite Index” calculates your text’s jargon density (hint: you want as low a score as possible). BullFighter works best with Office 2003 and XP. I have two computers with Office 2000 and XP Pro: BullFighter works on one, but not the other. Why remains a mystery…
  • DrivelDefense, a Java-based application that helps you check if your text is written in plain English. It analyzes your sentences and suggests other words if it suspects you’ve let jargon slip in. Because this application is Web-based, there are no compatibility issues. The Plain English Campaign’s Web site is full of freebies, including Plain English magazine, style guides, and specialized glossaries. They also run the Golden Bull Awards in honor of the year’s best examples of gobbledygook. Click here for the 2008 Golden Bull winners.
  • You can check your terminology against the MBA Jargon Index and contribute your own definitions. Better yet, take a break and read through the Index: laughter oxygenates the brain.
  • If you run business English writing workshops, you might like to try the Buzzword Bingo game.

Of course, none of these solve the question “How or if to translate jargon” and I plan to chat with my client tomorrow about his French jargon-infested piece. Maybe I should have written a post called What happens when a management consultant writes marketing copy for a non-profit? But these tools may help me catch whatever drivel words managed to disguise themselves as acceptable vocabulary.


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