Wednesday, December 03, 2008


International English

BBC World News had two big stories the other night: the UK's crisis budget and the composition of the incoming US administration.

Some of the UK terminology was perceived as requiring translation for an international audience: value-added tax became sales tax ("or VAT as the Brits call it") and Chancellor of the Exchequer was first glossed then replaced by Finance Minister.

In the US report, though, the corresponding and similarly untransparent Treasury Secretary went unexplained.

I should add that in the UK story it was perfectly clear from the circumstances what sort of public official the Chancellor was - announcing the budget, addressing Parliament etc. - whereas for Treasury Secretary there was little or no context.

It may be inferred from this that there are two considerations in deciding whether a term local to a particular part of the world needs to be delocalized for global consumption. The first is whether it is sufficiently transparent, the second whether it is sufficiently familiar internationally. Presumably value-added tax became sales tax on the basis that the latter term is more transparent even though value-added tax has wide international currency, whereas it was thought fit to gloss the Chancellor but not the Secretary on the basis that the world is familiar with US but not with British politics.

Or perhaps there is just one simple rule: leave US usage as it is, dumb everything else down.

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