The Brexit decision has prompted a wide variety of reactions, but for me it brought back memories of the heady days of Brentry and its major impact on the translation industry in New Zealand. I use the term “Brentry” because in the logic of things, Britain’s decision to leave the European Union had to be preceded by its agreement to join it in the first place. This occurred back in the 1970s (when the term generally used was “the common market”).
Because of that decision, over just a few years New Zealand lost its privileged access to the United Kingdom as a market for its agricultural products in particular – which meant that we had to sell them somewhere else. And to do that effectively, we had to be able to communicate with our new markets, many of which, strange to relate, spoke languages other than English.
So that was the demand side of the equation – the need to interact with non-English speaking markets. What of the supply side?
Well, it quickly became clear that New Zealand lacked translation capability, particularly in the private sector. There were one or two agencies – one in Auckland specialising in Spanish, another in Eastbourne, near Wellington, as I recall, but that was hardly going to meet the demand from a burgeoning export sector.
And then there was the Translation Service of the Department of Internal Affairs, which leapt into the breach and proceeded to fill the gap, as best it could, with a mix of inspired improvisation and some rigorous quality control set up by Senior Translator Bill Aldridge. The younger staff members who did most of the leg work as New Zealand started to talk to the world in this way included Patrick King, who joined the Service in 1975, Paul Sulzberger, who was there from around 1980, and yours truly, appointed in 1978.
Less than 10 years later, the nuclear structure of the then Translation Service became somewhat unstable, and a number of explosions resulted in the formation of New Zealand Translation Centre as a private company, now NZTC International, with Patrick and Paul as two of the initial directors at the helm.
But my “Brentry” memories relate particularly to those days at Internal Affairs, as we junior public servants endeavoured to meet the needs of the New Zealand business sector. These were many and varied: dairy exports were obviously most important, particularly into the Latin American market, it seemed, and several of us quickly became familiar with the particular subset of Spanish involved in contracts, learning about letters of credit, bills of lading and INCOTERMS.
There was also a rapid upswing in the demand for Japanese, again because of companies looking for fresh outlets in that part of the world. We had access to a pool of native speakers of Japanese – and indeed just about any other language – but we also had our colleague Bill Ashwell, who was a Japanese specialist (as well as reading most European languages), and we soon also had a remarkable new typewriter, which enabled Bill to type Japanese documents. He would hover over the keyboard looking over hundreds of miniscule characters for the one he needed. He would then pounce on it, activate a handle, and a little piece of lead would be hurled at an unsuspecting page.
For product labels, restaurant menus or anything with a graphics component, Bill used a glorified Letraset-type system. This was also the technology available for meat labels, for example, in Arabic and Farsi, ably manipulated by Paul Sulzberger.
Meanwhile Patrick King was poring through French agricultural magazines to work out the preferred French terminology for “automatic teat cup remover” or pondering the finer points of genetic improvement or herd testing in German, and I was learning the rudiments of accounting by deciphering credit reports on Italian businesses produced by an Italian insurance agency, or “adapting” a set of pleadings from Danish into Norwegian. This last predicament arose because we had access to a professional translator working from English into Danish, written Danish is very closely related to written Norwegian, and the Norwegian consul was prepared to proofread the Norwegian text. We couldn’t go offshore, of course, because of foreign exchange restrictions! Remember them?
All of us were continually trying to learn new languages, and were young and crazy enough to believe this was possible. This was a genuine case of invention born of necessity, as we strove to offer New Zealand exporters flexible communication capability from within the less than flexible constraints of the unreformed New Zealand economy.
But on the creation of NZTC, in the era of deregulation and Rogernomics, it was that knowledge of many languages concentrated in just a few heads that gave the new company its unique selling point. Indeed, our ability to ensure consistent style and consistency across a wide range of target texts continues to play a crucial role in our translations of medical equipment texts into twenty or thirty languages, for example.
So as most observers survey the future prospects of Brexit with a measure of apprehension, I look back to Brentry with considerable gratitude, for the amazing opportunities it created for us in the New Zealand language industry.