On Tuesday I was asked to review a generic letter to clients that had been “professionally” translated from Hebrew to English. Wielding my red pen with the hungry anticipation of a famished vampire, I proceeded to correct just about everything on the  page except  the spaces between the paragraphs. Not being able to resist the kind of stupid one-liner that costs me so dearly in my annual employee feedback review, I passed the sheet nonchalantly across the desk with the comment, “Apart from that, it is perfect”.

The truth is that there wasn’t a single word in the document that was technically mistranslated – it’s just  that, if words could be compared to cars,  it was like a totally fatal pile-up on a fog-covered stretch of the M1.

I had a similar, if less violent, reaction when I read the English translation of the Pope’s resignation speech. The use of the word “convoked” in the first sentence sent me diving for my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary to discover whether this was, what one of my English teachers used to call a “lovely word, doesn’t exist”. Well, it certainly does exist and, what is more, it is a faithful translation of the original Latin “convocavi” although a better oiled translator would definitely  have gone for the more comfortable “convened”. Having finally located the original Latin text (there isn’t much call for it these days outside the convocation (good word) of cardinals who heard the speech in person) I noticed that for the term “not only…but also”  His Holiness had used ” non solum…sed etiam” rather than the more common “non modo …sed etiam”. It made me wonder whether he had gone for a word that conveyed his extreme loneliness (solus=alone) in coming to his decision – a sentiment that never made it into the English version.

“Lost in Translation” could have been a good title for a movie if Sofia Coppola hadn’t got there first (and won an Oscar in the process).

Last week France, Germany and the UK issued a joint communique to their G20 partners supporting the newly released OECD report on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS). The report came in the wake of the growing outcry among some leading nations that they are not able to tax a big enough share of the global profits of multinational groups. Although the Americans have been slightly less vocal on this since the US is the godhead of a large proportion of those groups, the IRS has been trying to hammer Amazon recently on its profit shifting to Luxembourg – so some cooperation can be expected.

What is interesting is that this report is not actually a report. It is a framework designed to pinpoint the problems that exist. Talk is of a report in July. To this must be added the keenly anticipated OECD progress report due in April on “Transparency and Exchange of Information”, not to mention the Beneficial Ownership proposed Model Treaty update from October 2012. Then, of course, there is the Daddy of them all  – Working Party No 6, which sounds like something out of Orwell’s 1984, that has been spending somebody’s (the taxpayer’s?) money for several years now, working on the tax treatment of “Intangibles”, the easy mobility of which is one of the tax world’s core evils. Although an update was only expected in late 2013, the Working Party  shocked the world (you must have felt it) when it gave a progress report last June. There might even, one day, be a final report (shock, horror).

But one thing is almost for sure – whenever all these committees, working parties and convocations report – NOTHING WILL BE ANY CLEARER. Why? Because they will be written with the usual lack of clarity that comes from culturally diverse  groups trying to crawl their way through the intricacies of unshared language. And the really sad thing is that everyone (and that includes people who don’t even know how to fill in a tax return) knows what really needs to be done to get the international tax system straight.

There is a solution to the reams of gobbledegook. It came to me a few years ago when the family was vacationing in Italy. Arriving in Firenze (Florence to beer swilling Brits), I attempted to follow the Italian English instructions from the landlords of the apartment we were renting in the old city explaining how to drive in and deposit our suitcases. If you have never been to Firenze (book a ticket NOW) you may not know that you are supposed to park outside the old city precincts in car parks that fleece you beyond anything you imagined even the Italians were capable of. Approaching the city walls I noticed one of those wordless round red signs with a horizontal white band through the middle. Suggesting sheepishly to my wife that this was, perhaps, not a great idea she insisted – on the basis of the landlords’  instructions –  that we continue. Two minutes later, having braved a couple of narrow one-way streets and unavoidably driven back out through the city wall, I found myself facing the same sign again. Try again, I was instructed. The third time I revolted, made for a car park and bundled everybody into a taxi. A few months later, true to their motto “We try harder”, Avis made sure I received two identical tickets from the local Cabinieri for €90 apiece.

The point is that we all understand symbols and we don’t understand Italian English. It is time for international bodies like the OECD to abandon all these reports and revert to hieroglyphics and numbers. Instead of reeling off thousands of pages of draft, interim draft, final draft, and really final draft reports – they should produce powerpoint presentations with diagrams based on internationally agreed symbols and icons, accompanied by multiple numerical examples of how the thing the diagram is representing is supposed to work. I actually remember the Americans putting out a Treasury Paper on withholding tax from  software payments in the 1990s which, while not adopting the powerpoint approach, used around 20 examples which made the whole thing totally clear even to someone like me who is not an American speaker.

There is wide belief that Pope Benedict has earned a long and happy retirement. As regards his successor, the older among you will remember the unfortunate pope whose heart gave out, or – if you are into conspiracy theories – was given out, a month after his ascension to the papacy in 1978. He decided to take the name of his two predecessors – John XXIII and Paul VI – becoming Pope John Paul I. His celebrity successor, presumably out of respect for his early demise, named himself John Paul II.  If the new guy wants to stay in the headlines he might take a leaf out of John Paul I’s  book and name himself after his five predecessors –  Pope  John Paul John Paul John Paul Benedict I. A juggernaut of a name like that  would survive any language crash.

5 thoughts on “Holy smoke

  1. John,
    As usual, so true. Thanks, I enjoyed it.
    Can I assume from reading the first part that there is a slight chance that you miss me?! 🙂

    1. Alon – All of us at the firm miss your smiling face (very well caricatured above – how did you do it? An app?) irrespective of your multilingual writing abilities.

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