METM21 Online Chronicles: Timothy Barton

An overview of institutional styles: from excellent tips we can all apply to the downright weird guidelines we should probably ignore

Timothy Barton is based in Namibia and is a freelance translator and editor working in the fields of macroeconomics, sports and education. He frequently works with large international organizations and is a UN-rostered translator. As such, he works closely with many institutional style guides, and his talk at the METM21 online conference discussed the differences between them.

First, Tim covered the basics of style guides: what they are, their purpose, the kinds of information they list, and the different kinds of style guide. He highlighted some of the major differences between style guides, including:

  • US English versus British English
  • -ize versus -ise spellings
  • “Data is” versus “data are”
  • Conditions for using serial commas
  • Year ranges punctuated with hyphens or en dashes, and using two or four digits, e.g. 2012-2018 as opposed to 2012-18
  • Spelling out numbers or using digits
  • Currency formats
  • Short versus long forms of country names

While I was familiar with most of the above, one that came as a surprise to me was the short versus long form of country names. In very formal documents like treaties, the long form of countries must be used, such as the Kingdom of Spain instead of just Spain.

There are also politically motivated restrictions on how to refer to certain territories. For example, as Hong Kong is not a self-governing entity, it has to be referred to as an economy, while Reunion is a geographical area, not a country, a nation or a state.

Then there are Chinese territories and claimed territories, and style guides can be very strict about what they are called. Taiwan, for example, should be referred to as Taiwan (WIPO), Taiwan Province of China (FAO, UN, WMO), Chinese Taipei (WTO, OECD), and Taiwan, China (World Bank). Some of these style guides also offer rules on what not to do: capitalize the province name, do not leave out the comma, etc.

A fun (and noisy) part of Tim’s presentation was the “Guess the abbreviation” game, at which the audience didn’t do very well. As style guides are meant to improve communication, they often restrict the use of acronyms because these can have multiple meanings. In fact, the United Nations style guide does not allow the use of UN in their texts! Such restrictions can border on the “downright weird”, as Brexit is treated as an (unacceptable) acronym by certain style guides. When the same style guides prohibit the use of the possessive ‘s with country names, entire sentences may need to be recast.

Another bizarre rule is what Tim has called the Yamoussoukro rule, which exists in the UN style guide. When cities are mentioned, they need to be followed by a comma and their country, except when they are capital cities. So Lagos, Nigeria, but Abuja [Nigeria’s capital]. Does this rule improve communication? Not particularly.

Tim’s top tips included:

  • Reduce the use of acronyms and define them when possible
  • Use your translator’s head (“Will this still make sense when translated?”)
  • Avoid translationese
  • Know your audience
  • Use checklists

It was a fascinating talk, despite the connection dropping briefly towards the end, to everyone’s chagrin. Fortunately, Tim managed to reconnect and a good time was had by all.

This METM21 Online presentation was chronicled by Roberta Basarbolieva.

2 thoughts on “METM21 Online Chronicles: Timothy Barton

  1. Thanks for the review Roberta. I didn’t catch this presentation live, but now that I see it’s of interest, I can view the recording.

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