Monday, July 2, 2007

Talking the Talk

A colleague of mine does not write very well, in large measure because his father always condemned what he called "twenty dollar words," and was willing to back up his condemnation with the occasional act of corporeal punishment. So my colleague grew up with a limited vocabulary, and a substantial uneasiness with the written word. It didn't stop him from becoming a world class researcher, but it does dog him to this day that he sometimes gets the language wrong in a report or paper, sometimes to serious disadvantage.

On the other side of the coin are those among us who revel in complex and complicated language, not to mention technical jargon and outright obfuscation. There are plenty of reasons for it, not the least of which being that the phrase "peer review" is shorthand for saying that your paper is sometimes sent to your worst professional rival before publication. Many are the scientists who have discovered that a hard-to-understand paper presents less of a target for a referee's slings and arrows. You'd think it would be the other way around, but life isn't always rational.

More often, however, jargon creeps into our writing because scientists are rarely writers, and the ability to write clear and precise prose isn't all that common even in professions where writing is paramount. To put it bluntly, writing well is hard work, though there are plenty of writers who make it look easy. God bless them; for some of them it may even be easy, though I can't recall anyone ever confiding to me that it was.

There are some other reasons for obfuscatory writing and technical jargon that are less forgivable than those I've just mentioned, however. One of these reasons is common to language generally: it can be exclusionary. Language is one way to differentiate one group from another, a way of establishing who is "us" and who is "them." Wars have been fought over who speaks which language and who doesn't get to speak what language. Language, in short, can be exclusionary.

By the same token, sometimes language can be inclusionary. Let me tell you a story about that.

About fifteen years ago, I managed to land a brief consulting job with the World Bank. I was actually consultant to two back-to-back "missions" to Mexico, both of which involved the smog problem in Mexico City. A fellow smog researcher had originally been scheduled to go on these missions, but he wound up being dropped owing to a potential conflict of interest, not his, but the company he worked for. It's a common problem, having to pass up work because the people you work for might want some other, potentially conflicting work, and it's not the first time it has worked to my advantage. (It's worked against me often enough, too).

Anyway, the first part of the mission was unusual, even for the World Bank. Pemex, the state-owned oil company in Mexico, wanted to upgrade its refinery capacity to produce more "Magna Sin," their brand of premium unleaded gasoline. That was necessary because Mexico wanted to go to U.S. style catalytic converters on their automobiles. They wanted the catalysts in turn because Mexico City managed to have the worst smog in the Western Hemisphere with only three million automobiles. To be fair, Mexico City is also over a mile above sea level -- having less air to pollute does not give you less air pollution; it gives you more.

The Japanese Export Import bank wanted to make loans to Pemex to do the upgrade, but the Japanese Diet (Parliment), wanted an independent oversight. It seems that the Ex-Im bank had been caught making foolish loans just in order to boost Japanese exports. (No, really? Why would any country do that?). After more than one too many defaults, the Diet told them to get the World Bank involved.

So cut to a meeting with three groups of people: Pemex officials, speaking Spanish, Japanese Ex-Im bank representatives, speaking Japanese, World Bank mission, speaking English.

(In fact, the head of the World Bank mission was German, but he spoke fluent English, as well as three or four other languages, I believe. But most of us were like me. I've actually tried, at one time or another, to learn all of the languages I've just mentioned, including German. The net result is that I can occasionally catch the drift of a conversation in Spanish, I can read German provided I have a dictionary and half an hour per paragraph, and I can tell when a Japanese person is asking a question or counting. Which is to say that I'm completely useless for any language besides English, just like the rest of my countrymen).

There was one translator for the meeting, a Japanese woman living in Mexico. It was a virtuoso performance; I still get gooseflesh thinking about it. Someone would speak, and she would then translate, sequentially, into the other two languages. And I don't mean a sentence at a time. She did whole paragraphs, sometimes more. Imagine even doing that in English, listening to someone say several sentences, then tell what the person said to two other people, one after another. If you think even that limited version is easy, try it, and see how quickly you get tired and begin to forget the beginning of the paragraph before you get to the end.

As I said, a virtuoso performance, and grueling. We had to take a fifteen minute break every hour for her to rest. Even so...well, as I said, I get goosebumps. For quite a while, the translation went smoothly, Then, a couple of hours into the session, it broke down.

The culprit, if that is the right word for him, was the senior member of the Japanese delegation. He was nominally in charge, but that is because he was the senior person, literally the oldest. The Japanese have a reverence for age that it more attractive to me the older I get. The upshot of this social grace is that, no matter what the actual circumstances, the oldest member of the delegation is "in charge." The others in the group defer to him, even if he is not really the person who is running things, or the person who will write the final report (though it may well be in his name). It is both a courtesy thing and more than that.

In our case, the senior member was an old academic, a university researcher, a smog scientist, in fact. He'd once even run a smog chamber, which is a laboratory vessel for making synthetic smog, for research purposes. It's not that uncommon; there may be as many as a couple hundred people in the world who are familiar with their use. So our wise old man began to speak of his research. Some of it was reminiscing, some of it was germane, although tangentially so, to the problems we were there to talk about.

The problem was, the language that he was speaking wasn't Japanese. It wasn't English, either. It was, well, smog jargon. "Peroxyacetyl nitrate" for example, is not to be found in either English or Japanese (or Spanish) dictionaries. (I’ve made some changes to the Wikipedia entry because what I found there originally had a lot of errors in it).

But I knew what he was talking about, because I happened to speak that language.

So then things got a little comical. Between us, the translator and I could figure out what the wise old man was saying. Sort of like one person knowing the verbs and the other the nouns. And occasionally (very, very, occasionally) I'd pick up enough of the Japanese to get some of that on my own. The result was that I would translate the technical vocabulary into common English terms, which she could then translate into Spanish—and back into Japanese.

I noticed that some of the Japanese delegation were paying particular attention to that. They could not ask their senior member to explain himself in simpler terms in Japanese—that would be both impolite and embarrassing. It would be an admission that they themselves didn't understand. But when it was restated back in simpler terms, the professor would nod as say, "Yes, that is what I meant." Sometimes he looked over at me and smiled, the two of us sharing a private joke, perhaps, or at least a private language.

That experience recurred some time later, when we all visited an air monitoring site out in the suburbs, on the grounds of an elementary school. Very nice monitoring station, and if any of you reading this are knowledgeable about such things, you'll know what kind of day it was when I say that they were measuring ozone at 360 part per billion. Just for comparison, Los Angelese hasn't seen readings that high in almost two decades.

They also had a lot of potted plants near the station, I suspect also for monitoring purposes. I say that I suspect that they were for monitoring because they plants showed a characteristic yellow splotching. That stuff I mentioned earlier, "peroxyactyl nitrate?" It does that to plants. I looked at the spots, pointed, and said to one of our Mexican counterparts, "PAN?" He nodded. "PAN," he confirmed, in the language that was neither Spanish nor English and which both of us spoke.

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