Terms of Business part two

Business terms for the business of terms

No 13½ in a series of articles about translating from Serbian (and other languages) into English

I didn’t quite get to finish this subject in the last post, so here’s an addendum.

The common use of the term ‘citizens’ to mean ‘people’ (see previous post), when what is really meant may be ‘residents of whatever citizenship’, or just ‘whoever happens to be there’, seems to me to have some vague similarity with the use of ’employees’. This term somehow calls for a contrast with ’employers’. In a collective wage-bargaining procedure this has its logic, but we often see managers contrasted with employees, which doesn’t always make sense since managers are also employed: even managing directors (or CEOs) are employees, as they are usually remunerated by contract for the work they do each month, even if some of them are also company shareholders.

The Serbian word for employees ‘zaposleni’ just means someone who is put to work, and in that sense it covers everyone in the company. Of course it doesn’t cover people employed by subcontractors, though whether it would cover Uber drivers or other more-or-less permanent gig workers I don’t know. However that is, the best fit in English is usually ‘the staff’, as this also just applies to anyone you’ll find there with a direct association to the firm, but without the emphasis on their contractual relationships.

‘Staff’ is one of those funny words that can be both singular and plural. It can refer to everyone at once as a body of people, in which case each person is a ‘member of staff’. The word is then singular: “The staff was informed about the remote working arrangements”.

But it can also be plural, referring to each person: “I told all the staff they would have to take turns to work from home: Jakob today, Grethe tomorrow”. Suit yourself, depending on which aspect you want to highlight.

Just to be confusing, the word ‘staff’ is used a bit differently in a military context, where it means the management, high-ranking officers, the top brass.

‘Favourable’ is another common term we see in business texts. The Serbian ‘povoljno’ business conditions are just about always translated as ‘favourable’, but I’m not happy with it, it doesn’t sound right. ‘Favourable’ suggests a comparison, which somehow needs stating (like favourable compared to the conditions you will find in Eritrea) , or perhaps you wonder whom they are favouring (deep-pocketed foreigners over struggling local companies?). It’s usually used to just mean ‘good’ (an excellent word by the way); you might also have ‘excellent’ business conditions or ‘easy’ ones, or conditions of minimised red tape. Think of what the author really wanted to say.

‘Investment’ is usually best that way – as an uncountable noun (Our municipality is good at attracting investment. Total investment amounted to 40m euros this year.) The plural ‘investments’ can (more rarely) be justified if you need to emphasize individual projects (There were three new investments this year).

A few other odd points. As always, beware of acronyms. Most Serbians with a connection to business will know what a ‘PIB’ is, but my guess is that a ‘TIN’ may make some readers of English scratch their heads. Better to be safe and write it out: ‘tax number’ or ‘VAT number’ (VAT will be recognised for sure). Another example is JP Djerdap: most Serbians will recognise JP as being a public company, but whether an English speaker will know that PE Djerdap stands for a public enterprise is a lot less certain. You may as well just keep JP as part of the Serbian proper name, or write it out as the Djerdap public company.

Repetition seems to be a Serbian speciality. Is that the language and custom, or just the style of the authors we happen to deal with? I can’t judge that, but in English you don’t need to clutter the text by repeating ‘of the Republic of Serbia’ every time you mention the government – after the first mention nobody will think you mean the Australian one.

Another form of repetition: ‘takse i naknade’ are both ‘fees’ or ‘charges’ (which ought to cover just the cost of a service, but become parafiscal charges when they exceed it), quite different from taxes (more general government income to spend on other things). Perhaps the author may make a distinction between these two, but usually it’s just a lazy duplicate expression, like ‘terms and conditions’ (there is in fact a difference between those two, but most people who write it are unaware of that and are just being sloppy). Truncate it to one word and you will enhance readability without losing anything.

Then ‘znacajno’ – ‘significant’ – is used everywhere in Serbian, but the translation is often misleading. Things can be significant without being important, and just big without being especially significant (an elephant in a safari park) or vice-versa (a mouse on the nuclear launch button). ‘Important’ or ‘major’ usually works better: most investment projects are significant, but whether they will have a major impact on a town is another matter.

Oh, and ‘key’: an issue can be ‘the key’ to the solution, or it can be ‘a key point’ but please not just ‘key’. “This is key” – you see it often, but it’s awful.

In business as in law, there is a temptation to use excessively fancy English terms. As Winston Churchill famously pointed out, the old, short, words are usually better than later, Latin arrivals, so:
a majority of – most
numerous – many
optimal – best
multiple – many, several
prior to – before
the aforementioned – these
construction – building

and a whole lot more.

So don’t use multiple advantageous terms from the aforementioned list to describe optimally favourable business conditions prior to concluding your translation, just use plenty of the right words to describe the best conditions before you finish, and Bob’s your uncle, it will be understood, and perhaps even read.

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