Office to tackle the bureaucrats' gobbledygook
12 September 2005, BREMEN, GERMANY - When confronted with pages of fine-print text in legal or bureaucratic jargon, people with intellectual handicaps can turn to an unusual new translation bureau in Germany that offers a plain explanation of the gobbledygook.
12 September 2005
BREMEN, GERMANY - When confronted with pages of fine-print text in legal or bureaucratic jargon, people with intellectual handicaps can turn to an unusual new translation bureau in Germany that offers a plain explanation of the gobbledygook.
The Bureau for Plain Language, operated by a relief agency in the German city of Bremen for those with special needs, finds no shortage of work.
Medications in Germany are sold with information leaflets that use very long words wrapped into long sentences and seemingly designed to defeat understanding.
When warned that painkillers might cause "analgetica nephropathy", most of us haven't a clue what it means.
That's where the bureau comes in handy. It explains: "If you take too many painkillers, your kidneys many not work properly."
The bureau is waging an uphill battle against medical reports, legal contracts, administrative notices and appliance instructions written in the secret jargon of the experts.
"Disabilities don't just make places inaccessible. They can also create a barrier to communication," explains translator Claudia Wessels, 32. If you cannot understand what you read, you get stamped as a failure.
She and the other translator, Petra Schneider, 36, are currently translating a rental contract at the request of a hostel for the disabled which wants its inmates to understand what they are signing up for. Both women are qualified as teachers.
"A clear structure is the foundation of plain language," explains Wessels. She reduces long sentences to a series of short ones, mostly just one line long. She replaces obscure terms with colloquial ones, and looks for vibrant ways to express abstract ideas.
Schneider says the two translators spend as much time illustrating the text as they do re-writing it.
Slabs of close fine print are unattractive to read, so the translations are in larger print, with plenty of paragraphs and indents that help organize the ideas logically. Cartoons and other illustrations back up the main points.
The rental contract, for example, was seven pages long in the bureaucratese version. The translation extends to 40 pages with 130 illustrations along the way. It has taken Schneider and Wessels several months to write.
Most of their customers are organizations, because at a fee of 40 euros per page the service is not really affordable for individuals.
"We would like, long-term, to bring down the fees so that ordinary people can afford us," explained Wessels.
The bureau, set up in January 2004, is mainly financed from fees paid by users. The two employ six freelance assistants.
Soon the bureau is to begin training public officials and other professionals in how to use plain language. Though it would put them out of a job, Schneider and Wessels say they would be delighted if weighty documents were written in plain words to start with.
"There is actually a legal requirement in Germany for public authorities to communicate in a 'barrier-free' way," said Wessels. "It wouldn't just help the handicapped. It would be a boon to all of us."
Subject: German news