On bilingualism and the search for the mot juste

Catching up on my reading over Christmas I came across your feature ‘Signs of equality’ (DW 6 December), a piece on bilingual signage.

A good, solid article, but it did make me feel very old.

When I was training at Canterbury the doyens of the industry were people like Dick Negus, Terence Conran and Alan Fletcher; coming up fast were Rodney Fitch, Michael Peters and Michael Wolff, not to mention the Minales and Tattersfields. So that dates me. But your writer is having a ‘eureka moment’ many, many decades after some of us who are still at it.

When I first came to South Africa in the late 1960s, most signage and print, especially annual reports, were bilingual. I quickly discovered the difference between ‘tumble turn’ and parallel, and the potential use of colour. Global examples we turned to in those days were Canada and the Netherlands.

One problem not mentioned in your article is the different lengths of languages – for example, Afrikaans (the old Dutch) is around 17 per cent longer than English. This becomes an issue in an annual report.

However, the other major problem – and here I totally agree with the writer – is translation. But getting ‘reliable translations’ is easier said than done. For starters, some English words do not have a local equivalent.

For example, I designed an award-winning letterhead for the US company Honeywell Computers in the late 1960s, but at that stage there was no local word for computers. An academic helped us out. On another occasion we had three professors from three different universities in South Africa arguing about the correct translation of some accounting terminology, much to our client’s concern.

So welcome to the world of bilingualism. But before you relax, remember that some countries have more than ten official languages. Those who come to Cape Town’s Design Indaba at the end of February may get first-hand experience.

Jeremy Sampson, Chief executive, IBSA, by e-mail

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