METM16 presentation 

"I had to swerve before I hit him": the perils of ambiguity and how to avoid them 

Oliver Lawrence, Norma, Italy 

Ever wondered if you might have unwittingly left a double entendre or ambiguous statement in a job that you’ve just delivered? It’s easily done. You knew what you meant, but perhaps you were so close to the text that you couldn’t see the alternative meaning in what you wrote.
“Toilet out of order; please use floor below”, “prostitutes appeal to president” and similar gems are all very amusing, but ambiguities can be costly. Grasshopper-minded consumers may bin your marketing flyer if they have to struggle to get the point. Ambiguities in engineering requirement specs can result in expensive rework if discovered too late. And in safety-critical environments, ambiguous instructions have even proved fatal. It pays to get it right.
This presentation discusses several types of ambiguity and their causes, from polysemy to “negative because” and issues of what modifies what (as with Lily Allen’s slip about “black cab drivers”). And then there is the problem of leading readers into verbal dead ends: we tend to anticipate what’s coming next, and poorly structured sentences can trip readers up and force them to backtrack to make out the meaning.
Attend this session and you’ll come away equipped with various strategies for banishing ambiguity from your translations and the texts you edit. The key is to cultivate awareness of the pitfalls and maintain a certain distance – to see what you’ve actually said (rather than what you intended to). A method of detecting some types of ambiguity using a well-known freeware computer tool is also suggested.

Oliver Lawrence is a Chartered Linguist and MITI who has been purveying Italian-to-English translations since 2008, latterly under the name Incisive English. A second-time METMer, he specialises in translating and transcreating marketing copy (and even writing it, on a good day) from his base in Norma, not far from Rome. He also gives the webinar-based online training course “Clear Writing, Clear Benefits”.