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Dr DAVID WILLIAMS recalls a mistranslation which accidentally implied a product was causing eye disease and wonders how much of what we say to clients needs its own translation

I HAVE TO SAY THAT IF YOU ASK ME TO GIVE YOU A LECTURE or maybe a practical session on something I know a bit about – ophthalmology perhaps, or ethics and welfare – I’ll find it difficult to turn you down. Birmingham or Bristol for sure, but somehow Berlin and Bangkok seem a bit more appealing!

And so I found myself jetting off to Moscow to talk to the Russian equivalent of BSAVA. Conjunctivitis, corneal ulcers and cataracts are pretty standard fare as far as I’m concerned, but of course for the Russian vets I was speaking to it was Конъюнктивит, язвы роговицы и катаракты. Not that my Russian is up to scratch, it must be said: Привет, спасибо и до свидания (hello, thank you and goodbye) are about my limit!

Thank goodness then for a good translator, I’m sure you’ll agree. But wait a moment – how can I tell if the translator I’ve been given really is as accurate as their fluent response to my lecture suggests?

One of my lectures was on inherited eye disease in dogs and I talked about a study I conducted after the Panorama programme – “Pedigree dogs exposed” – you may remember from several years ago.

I looked at the last thousand dogs I had seen either in referral clinics (375 dogs) or in the ambulatory service I provide for first opinion clinics around East Anglia (625 dogs). Of those seen in first opinion practices, 491 (79%) were pedigree breeds while in referral clinics 330 (88%) were pedigree.

Of the pedigree dogs seen in first opinion practices, 393 (63%) had problems specifically related to their pedigree status – corneal ulcers in boxers, glaucoma in flat coat retrievers, cataracts in Leonbergers to name but three – and in referral clinics 306 (82%) had similar inherited breedspecific issues.

I told the audience that the majority of dogs I see are pedigree breeds and that many had eye disease specifically related to their pedigree nature. And so the talk went on as I discussed these diseases one by one.

It wasn’t until dinner later that night with the ophthalmologist who had invited me to speak that he revealed to me how my words had been translated. “The majority of dogs I see with eye disease eat Pedigree dog food and many of them have eye disease specifically related to eating Pedigree dog food.”

Now there is a bit of a problem! Maybe rather more than a bit! Thankfully my friend John, who works for Mars, saw the funny side of it when I e-mailed him as soon as I got back to the hotel. He had the company relay the story to its Russian distributors as a bit of a joke. No harm done, with any luck.

Not a solid meaning

Interestingly, I was talking to a colleague at the university today about interpreting referees’ comments on potential research workers. An English scientist relaying that somebody’s work was “solid” was very much damning it with faint praise – reading between the lines, the reviewer meant “don’t touch this one with a barge pole”. This was an applicant very much to be avoided.

On the other hand a French or Dutch colleague suggesting that an applicant’s work was “solid” was actually giving high praise indeed. But one doesn’t have to cross the channel to encounter very different languages.

As I think I’ve told you previously I’m doing a doctorate in education, which has meant I’ve encountered the world of the social scientist. What a completely different language they use! Here are a few examples: Anne Cook-Sather in her paper “Sound, Presence, and Power: Student Voice in Educational Research and Reform” starts by telling us that “Every way of thinking is both premised on and generative of a way of naming that reflects particular underlying convictions,” which I guess is saying that we all have our own views on a subject… but it is a rather convoluted way of saying it.

Cassandra McMay tells us that “Within the field of education, the master narrative is affiliated with the process of assimilation which is imposed upon learners of colour, requiring conformity to the status quo and silencing a diversity of knowledge and opinion.”

Sorry? I’m not quite sure I understand you! But then the paper I plucked that quotation from was entitled “Community Education and Critical Race Praxis”, and I’m not sure I understood the title so maybe reading any further was a bit of a mistake.

In fact I think McMay means that black and Asian students find it difficult to fit into the school environment. If that is the case, why couldn’t she just have said it?

On the other hand, the papers I’ve co-authored so far this year – “Use of a subdermal plexus flap to reconstruct an upper eyelid following radical tumour resection in a cat” from JAVMA, “Changes in intraocular pressure and horizontal pupil diameter during use of topical mydriatics in the canine eye” from the Open Veterinary Journal and “Regenerating reptile retinas: a comparative approach to restoring retinal ganglion cell function” from the human ophthalmic journal Eye – would I guess be just as incomprehensible to a researcher in education as I found their papers!

Why am I telling you this? Being a bit reflective on these issues and my own work, I think what it has told me is just how careful we must be in talking to owners about what we are diagnosing in their animals and telling them how we are going to treat them.

Plain English

I well remember a little pug a fair few years ago with a central corneal descemetocoele where I was planning to do a corneoconjunctival transposition graft, but not before using a topical non-steroidal anti-inflammatory to reduce prostaglandin-mediated secondary fibrinoid aqueous production in case of intraoperative rupture.

I had a student with me and was explaining this to them, so I apologised to the owner and told her I would explain it in plain English in a few moments. “Oh, don’t worry,” came the reply. “I understand it all. My father and my brother are both ophthalmologists!”

From that moment on I fully expected the entire situation would go pear-shaped (why do we say that? I wonder), but actually the surgery went really well and sight was restored. But the point is that most of the time the owner won’t have a clue what we are saying unless we are careful to explain it to them.

It is all too easy just to slip into our veterinary way of speaking and not realise that simpler language is imperative – the last thing we want is to be lost in translation ourselves!

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