Roads Less Taken: Beyond the “UN6”

In my job, once you leave the UN6, a special set of complications comes into play. The less widely spoken the languages are, the more daunting these challenges can become.

“Divehi”—the word leapt from my monitor as I sipped my morning coffee at my U.S. State Department desk. Thoughts ranged from the exotic to the practical to the panic-stricken.

  • Divehi: Official language of the Republic of the Maldives, the sublime tourist destination I dream of visiting with my family.
  • Divehi: The proud language with Prakrit and Sanskrit roots, the distant Indo-European cousin of English.
  • Divehi: Spoken by a mere 350,000 souls worldwide, thus ranking among what we in the translation business call a language of limited diffusion (LLD).
  • Divehi: A language for which I had not one single translator on my roster of contractors, thus making the project virtually “unstaffable,” to use government-speak.

As I read the e-mail further, my heart sank. The client needed a 2,000-word guidance sheet translated into a number of Asian languages within three days! No matter that the final version was still in clearance and that the end product would need desktop publishing work; the deadline was immutable. Such was my cruel reality that morning—one I’m sure many language services providers (LSPs) have shared.

My office—the U.S. State Department’s Office of Language Services (LS)—concentrates on the languages that sovereign nations use routinely in their diplomatic relations. Up to that point, no Divehi project had ever crossed my desk, which led me to conclude that the Maldives was dealing with the U.S. primarily in English—which is used widely there—in its official correspondence and treaty-making. Given the sheer lack of work in the language, I had never recruited Divehi translators. I began regretting that decision, even though other “rainy day” recruiting efforts had led to “hurry up and wait” scenarios that frustrated eager translators.

I called the client and ultimately spoke with the person in her office far up the chain of command who had commissioned a translation into the noble Divehi tongue. The answer was one I had heard before in similar multi-language extravaganza projects. Someone, in an over-zealous but well-meaning moment of web searching, had tracked down every possible language in which the guidance sheet might be viewed. The client assumed that we had vast pools of Divehi translators eager to take on yet another bracing assignment! But when confronted with my reality, the client readily agreed that the potential readers of this particular Divehi translation would also understand the English original. Ultimately, she decided to pare down the request.

Would the world have been better with a hastily prepared Divehi translation? At least in this case, all indications were that a rushed translation by an untried team could have done more harm than good. For me, the episode served as a reminder of the challenges involved in projects that include the world’s less widely-spoken languages.

The Challenges of the Non-UN6

Call them what you like—languages of limited diffusion (LLDs), less commonly taught languages (LCTLs), or even “long tail” languages (from the shape formed when languages are graphed by number of speakers)—someone is apt to be displeased with the label. Depending on the criteria chosen, Hindi, Bengali, or Portuguese—each among the 10 most-spoken languages in the world—could all be considered LCTLs. Each of these labels has its own membership criteria, and I have often been surprised to see the limited diffusion moniker attached—perhaps erroneously—to languages that have millions of speakers. Perhaps it’s a testament to how hard it can be to recruit in these languages in the U.S. market. My preferred and very bureaucratic term for these “hard to staff” languages is “the non-UN6”—that is, every language in the world besides Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish, which are the six official languages at the United Nations. Because in my job, once you leave the UN6, a special set of complications comes into play. The less widely spoken the languages are, the more daunting these challenges can become.

Translators of the UN6 are often regarded as having benefits that translators of other languages don’t enjoy, but one could argue that both sides have offsetting advantages and disadvantages. Certainly the recruiting pools for the UN6 often run deeper, but that only means that the competition can be fiercer. And because the amount of work is often greater in the UN6, the roster of translators has to be bigger, which can quickly exhaust even the deepest recruiting pools.

I have actually sometimes found it easier to zero in on talented translators in LLDs simply because the cohort is smaller. The website of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) has been a gold mine. It provides links to hundreds of academic programs throughout North America that specialize in LLDs.

Locality is an issue with any language. But because the UN6 are so often used in international organizations and in communications across many locales, translators in the UN6 tend to be well-versed in a time-tested international variety of these languages, one relatively free from localisms. This is particularly important in the State Department, where treaties and diplomatic correspondence tend to avoid glaringly local usage. Yet, we LSPs know all too well that given the enormous geographical spread of the UN6, clients requesting translations in these languages are nonetheless apt to ask that the target text be adapted to local usage, be it the French of Switzerland or the Arabic of Chad! It’s a dichotomy that my office wrestles with every day. How many locales can you support? How many versions will you translate?

Then there is the special burden—particularly for those who translate from the UN6 into English—of staying current in the cultures, institutions, and buzzwords of multiple locales—more than 20 each in the case of French and Spanish. As a translator of Romance languages into English, I felt it my duty to attempt to keep up with several dozen locales—including Timor Leste for Portuguese and Equatorial Guinea for Spanish—and I secretly envied my Icelandic or Malagasy translator colleagues who could focus on one primary locale!

Another contest between the UN6 and the non-UN6 concerns lexical resources. The UN6 can justly claim vast riches when it comes to print dictionaries or online glossaries. But again, this seeming advantage can be a double-edged sword. The sheer volume of potential resources can overwhelm the researcher, who is left to sort out which among many are the most authentic and reliable. Those working in LLDs are foraging for terminology on electronic shelves that may not be as well stocked, but may indeed be easier to comb through surely and rapidly.

Having overseen hundreds of translation projects involving LLDs, I can identify six recurring problems that many LSPs will recognize.

  1. No Lifetime Guarantee of Work: You scour the globe for a translator of Lingala, Kyrgyz, or Hawaiian. You find two ideal translators—one to translate, the other to review. The project goes swimmingly, and the client is ecstatic. You thank the translators profusely. Then come the e-mails: “When is my next assignment?” The solution: be honest with the translators from the start that this may be their only gig with your company. But promise to keep their name on file and get it in writing that you can share their contact information with other LSPs.
  2. Few Translators, Many Critics: It’s not always possible to recruit overseas, and émigré communities in the U.S. that use an LLD can be very small worlds indeed. Don’t be surprised if everyone you contact in your recruiting effort knows each other. As always, judge prospective translators on their merits—their CVs, recommendations from other LSPs, and kudos from direct clients. And don’t be dismayed if, after finding almost no one willing to translate or review, you learn that there is no shortage of people willing to critique the final translation without being asked. A good way to stem this criticism is to ask, at the project’s outset, organized groups within these communities to provide you with a glossary or at least a list of “word allergies” among the terms to be translated. Once potential critics know they have been consulted, they also feel they have a stake in the project, and are less likely to criticize unduly.
  3. North, Central, and North Central: Most LSPs have established protocols for dealing with the issue of locales and dialects within the UN6. They are less apt to have a protocol on hand for dealing with Afghan versus Pakistani Pashto, or Peruvian versus Bolivian Aymara. Ask one expert, and you may be told there are no major differences in usage between one variety and another. Ask another expert, and you could be told the exact opposite. For some community-level translation projects, an LSP under pressure to assign an unfamiliar LLD will sometimes find it safer to choose a single, widely-used variety of the language and to draft a disclaimer in the language acknowledging that translator resources are limited and that the variety used is not the sole means of expression in the language in question. It’s also very helpful to make sure that both the translator and the reviewer understand whether the text they are producing is intended to be used within one locale or across several locales within the language. In many cases, a proactive stance by the LSP will ensure that the translator and the reviewer compromise and collaborate, rather than compete and obfuscate.
  4. Not Your Grandfather’s Albanian: Many LLDs are evolving rapidly in response to the political changes that have shaken the world in recent years. Think of the languages of the former Soviet Union or the former Yugoslavia—proud, ancient languages that are now enjoying a whole new existence. New countries have been born, obliging users of these languages to coin names for new institutions and practices constantly. Loan words pour in from English and other languages. Purists decry what they see as a degradation of the language, while a younger generation revels in the changes and condemns what it sees as quaint, outmoded forms of expression. How does an LSP keep up? Consider first and foremost the intent of the document in question. Contracts and laws can sometimes afford to be “stodgier” than ad copy or marketing correspondence. Ask your translation and review team to agree on style and usage rules from the outset and to collaborate on word choices. Which loan words can they accept; which will they avoid? Just as with the issue of locale, the style and terminology debate is not one you want to occur at the closing phases of any job. The consensus your team forges at the start will help you defend the phraseology used if the client or end user challenges the translation.
  5. Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t: Sometimes you’ll throw up your hands. Your translators will craft a sublime lexicon, based on the finest academic sources and usage studies, which the end users will then reject as being unintelligible. “So what do you suggest instead?” asks the LSP. “Well, we have a slang term we use in the office, but no one else knows it,” the end user replies. There are times when a translation can hinder, not help communication. Consider a technical training course in English that fails to take into account the education level of the students in other languages. Is the technically correct, but largely unintelligible translation into their language better than no translation at all, especially in locales where English coexists with other languages? If you must translate, do three things: 1) find a local subject matter expert from the outset to provide terminology guidance; 2) use disclaimers that acknowledge that technical equivalents are sometimes best attempts and that solicit input to improve future translations; and 3) convene a focus group of potential users to try out an initial installment of the translation before you get in too deep.
  6. No, or Almost No: Don’t be afraid to scale client expectations back—even way, way back. “The best I can do in two days is give you a summary translation from Samoan into English.” “I can translate your 12-page overview paper into Lithuanian, but not the 222-page report it introduces.” Sometimes, less can really be more. And if you just can’t make a go of it, it’s better to tell the client. This is particularly true of those assignments into umpteen languages. “We need this sign translated into 45 languages.” If you can only make a credible showing in 40, so be it. Don’t risk your reputation. Tell the client that beyond those 40, you can’t guarantee the same quality for which your LSP is justly proud. If the client respects that decision and goes ahead with the 40, that’s a client worth keeping.

The LLD projects I’ve overseen have been among the most rewarding in my career. We were once asked to provide a translation into an African language. We were proud of our delivered product—even when the client began balking over the system of diacritical marks used. When I asked the translator to justify the diacritics, she responded proudly that she had used the system developed by her father, who was responsible for authoring the definitive orthographic rules for his language in the early 1960s, when his country became independent. I knew I had selected the right translator!

I’m a firm believer that any language can rise to any occasion—it only takes the genius of an author, or a translator, to make this magic occur. So, next time you’re asked to provide an animated high-tech PowerPoint in Xhosa or Lenni Lenape, don’t despair. You may be embarking on the adventure of your career.

Joseph P. Mazza, a 1984 graduate of the George Washington University, joined the State Department’s Office of Language Services (LS) in 1989 as a translator of Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese) into English, following five years as a translator of Russian and Romance languages for the Navy. In 2003, he was named chief of LS’s Romance Translations Branch. Since early 2006, he has been chief of LS’s Translating Division, with responsibility for most State Department translations.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. government.

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