Sunday, October 25, 2009

Don't bank on it!

From a magazine for Professional Translators, The Linguist, comes an alarming report by Angela Foster involving both Natural and Native Translation. It illustrates how some people assume anybody bilingual may be called on to act as a Natural Translator in an emergency, even for communication that involves technical vocabulary.
“Rolando Gómez Aguilar is from Mexico but has lived in London for three years and has an account with HSBC, ‘the world’s local bank’. Although he speaks some English, his communication skills are limited – especially on the phone. When he made a short visit home in April, his [bank] card was blocked on arrival in Mexico City. Most banks provide 24-hour helplines for emergencies, with English-speaking staff on hand to advise. Despite promoting an international image, HSBC’s UK website is available only in English, and Gómez was unable to negotiate his way around it to find the correct number.
“When he finally got through to HSBC, he couldn’t understand the language they used – sort codes, account numbers and CCVs...
“Despite several requests for an interpreter, the only solution HSBC could offer was a conference call between Gómez, his wife (who would act as interpreter) and a bank advisor... When she told them there were many interpreting companies they could use, they weren’t interested in trying to find out about them.”
So it didn’t work out, and it doesn’t say much for HSBC, which is immensely rich and ought to know better.

Later in the same article, however, an HSBC representative is quoted as saying, “In areas were a range of languages are spoken, the bank endeavours to employ customer service advisers who can speak those languages. ‘Several of our branches in Tower Hamlets in east London have staff who speak Urdu… Our staff are all recruited locally so we can offer a service which is relevant to our locals customers.’”
In other words, where translation is needed in those areas, the bank relies on Native Translators – I say Native rather than Natural because we can assume that the employees involved have acquired considerable experience both in banking and its terminology and in translating for clients.

Another British bank mentioned in the article is Lloyds TSB. I happen to have an account with them myself. A few years ago I received a letter from my branch in London that needed assistance for me to reply to it. Actually they wanted confirmation that a photocopy of my passport was a true copy before they would execute an instruction I'd sent them. As there are branches of Lloyds here in Valencia, I went into the main one and asked if they could help. The lady who received me told me she didn’t know English, and she made no move to find somebody who did. So I translated the letter into Spanish for her myself – but then, I’m a Professional Translator. Did it do me any good? No way. She informed me officiously that the branch in Valencia could do nothing to help Lloyds clients in England. So I can well imagine something like Mr. Gómez’s predicament occurring in reverse for somebody who needs service in English.


Angela Foster. Money talks. The Linguist, October/November 2009, p. 16. Angela is a freelance writer and subeditor. She can be contacted at
The Linguist is the magazine of the Chartered Institute of Linguists, a venerable British institution that will be 100 years old next year. Under editors Miranda and Jessica Moore, it’s become a lively periodical of general-interest articles about language. For translators in particular, it carries a regular column by Peter Newmark. More at

HSBC stands for Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. Despite its name, it's another venerable British institution, but this one dating from the rip-roaring colonial China coast days in the 19th century. They tell on their website how they started, but I heard about it from an English friend who had learned Mandarin while working for HSBC in Shanghai in the 1950s.

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