The economic case for fucked translation

Via LS an anonymous cartoon of the gulf between what we (would like to) think we have said and what we (are understood to) have actually said:

Why don’t we say what we think? Why do the inventors of magnificent flying machines gibber like madmen? Why, in our case, do excellent Spanish bars produce hilarious English menus?

I think the local branch of the Habermas sect would preach to me that we are victims of a capitalist conspiracy, which actively seeks to do down richly deserving (although admittedly slightly whiney) literary-sociology PhDs and instead pays top money to people who invent cool stuff. I don’t buy this. For one, Genesis 3 seems to suggest that communicative incompetence predates modern bovine economics.

Instead, as millions of first-year economists and linguists will have explained elsewhere, it’s a simple question of resource allocation. On the one hand, for lonely inventors or cooks the proof’s in the pudding, and elocutionists and translators who seek to gild these particular lilies do so at their financial peril. On the other, the higher the risks and rewards in a particular line of business, the greater the value we place on people’s ability to wriggle effectively in both thought and speech. There’s a direct relationship between proximity to the killing, stealing and fucking Commandments and the importance of getting one’s words right. That’s why politicians are generally pretty fluent, and why (except in weird markets like the English courts) interesting legal translation commands a 100% markup over the best of the rest. Brian Steel’s Soapbox documents some of the relatively scarce failures to obey this rule.

The other day Mark Liberman posted an Italian aphorism (which for a long time was popular in Spain as the theme of a gerontophobe sex comedy, Quien puede no quiere, o el viejo burlado):

Chi po non vo,
chi vo non po,
chi sa non fa,
chi fa non sa
et così il mondo
male va.

A number of the examples on this blog have been sent to me by Spaniards embarrassed by their own organisations. Several could do far better themselves, but their allocation to other tasks both demonstrates David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage and refutes those smart-arse Italian proverbialisers.

Sometimes the world is actually better off when the best-qualified are kept clear and the fuckers get the translation.

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  1. "Apron", in the King James's version. Sure I don't remember that from my indoctrination years.

    I was hoping now to show that the word wasn't in use in the early C17th, but apparently it's Middle English.

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