English-Speaking Elite

by Translation Guy on July 2, 2010

English is widely spoken by rich people. Doesn’t matter where you go in the world―where there’s money, there’s English. They’ve got the time and the cash to get educated, and the opportunities to take advantage of it.

There was a time, and I remember it well, when those fancy folks were happy to speak their own languages and used an interpreter instead of spending all that time a book-learnin’.

Frankly, with all these English speakers cropping up, and specifically the part of the trade that has the money for it, it’s been bad for my interpreting business.

So, full disclosure: I don’t like all those rich guys putting my hard-working interpreters out of business with their amateur second-language antics.

Used to be that an interpreter was a dignified adjunct for any heavyweight frequent flyer, global statesman, and that ilk. But now that the world’s gone to hell in a handbasket, the new global public affairs standard is all English, all the time, and you better speak it or you’re gonna stay local.

So these days, global guys are expected to be able to stir up a global crowd in English. That is a tall order. In a global economy, audiences expect that anyone addressing them in their language had better know what they’re saying.

So in cases like these, perfect fluency may not be enough and, in fact, can be very dangerous. The glib and expressive international boardroom English used by Tony Hayward and his boss, Carl-Henric Svanberg, infuriated the “small people” and will end up costing BP a pretty penny.

But lack of fluency is equally dangerous. Anyone who speaks a second language knows how frustrating it can be to not be able to say what you want. It’s like a gag order. Or even if you do know exactly what you want to say, you’re x number of beats behind as you are forced to translate the hard bits in your own head.

I used to coach guys on this in a past career, so I’ve got both a professional and personal interest in this. And the presentation coaching is sometimes a part of the translator’s job, when the client has to deliver the message in another language all by themselves. Sometimes it’s a few lines that we’ve translated for a TV show, with the translator recording and coaching the actor for a few minutes.

We once translated a Country & Western tune into Persian for a guy to sing at a wedding. When I called the client for a debriefing, he reported that it took the audience two or three lines to realize that the cowboy song was being sung in Persian. Brought the house down―or so I was told.

Recently, I’ve been working on a bigger project with Diane Boardman, our accent mitigation expert. We brought Diane to polish a vowel or two on some pronunciation problems one of our clients is having.

Pronunciation in a second language is a harsh mistress. I can tell you from first-hand experience: if nobody knows what the hell you’re talking about, then there’s not much point saying it in the first place.

And even if the meaning of heavily-accented English can be deciphered by the listener, it’s a snooze filter that will bore an audience faster than you can say, “all your bases are belong to us.”

Since this mission I’m on with Diana is so ultra top-secret, I’ve asked our accent coach to do a professional English pronunciation evaluation for Tak Fujii of Konami, one of the presenters at the infamous Konami E3 2010 Press Conference, in an investigation into what he was actually talking about at the press conference. And before you say, “If it’s such a big top-secret mission, then why are you blogging about it?” I’ve already prepared a response:

“I’m not permitted to answer any further questions at this time. Additional questions should be submitted in writing in the comments section.”

See? Got an answer for everything. Meanwhile, (Teaser Alert), stay tuned for Diane’s excruciatingly precise analysis of everything that’s wrong with Tak Fujii’s English in our next post!

And Tak, all due respect to you, this is for you, man, with love from all the translators. Stay tuned.


  1. well for those guys for whome english is not the first language, Only and only the pronounciation is the big problem, but if you practice english, you’ll get it – it just takes some time… And try and live in an English speaking community, it helps!

  2. You’re right Ken, the key is to be able to express yourself effectively. If you can do that (and not many of us can) then you’ve mastered the language.

  3. I can’t wait to see the analysis of Tak Fuji. I’ve subscribed to your updates so that I don’t miss out! Thanks Ken. cheers!

  4. William says:

    yup, as you’ve mentioned incorrect expression can be fatal. One must perfect their english pronunciation, spelling, not so much, but hey… I’m interested in your top secret mission :) and I won’t ask why you are blogging about such secretive information

    • Ken says:

      Thanks for not asking, William.

  5. Raymond Puga says:

    I see too many americans/british/australians/etc being rude to people who don’t speak English correctly. Things like ‘learn how to speak’ are very common, but why is that? Do you find it insulting? On the other hand, they can be quite co-operative as well

  6. Tennyson says:

    I myself hate it when people rudely correct English grammar of non-native speakers. Come on! NOT EVERYONE WAS BORN IN THE THE US OR UK AND NOT EVERYBODY HAS THEIR HEAD UP IN THEIR ASSES. I find it stupid and annoys me. Also i feel pity to all the European

  7. I dont get upset but I am a native english speaker and I hate when a non native speaker tries to correct my english lol

  8. George Leu says:

    I find it appalling when a native English speaker can’t speak the language correctly. Most people who speak a different native language learn proper English and it exceeds most Americans/British/Canadian/Australian’s comprehension, and I have noticed it a

  9. Roger says:

    I am a native English speaker, who speaks German, not perfectly, but well enough. The other day I phoned a company in Germany, and asked, in German, to speak to some one. Said person came on phone and started speaking English, which I totally ignored, and

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