Press Releases – a special challenge for translators?

Polig makes the point that translating press releases poses particular challenges and demands skills that go "beyond accuracy and completeness of information". My question is: "Does it?"

“Fast and curious” is the heading of an interesting feature by Katherina Polig in the June/July issue of The Linguist. The standfirst states: “The media in different countries have different expectations, making translating press releases a specialised art”.

Polig makes the point that translating press releases poses particular challenges and demands skills that go “beyond accuracy and completeness of information”. My question is: “Does it?”. Is it really within the remit of the translator to render an overly verbose Italian or French press release into a sober and concise German tone, as she suggests (with an example).

A press release (also called news release or press statement) is an announcement by a company or organization that goes out to the news media. Typically, it covers an important event like a product launch, a merger or a new partnership, winning a prize, appointing a new CEO, opening a new store, securing a large contract, etc.

Press releases are meant to serve as the basis for the news outlets who then create their own story. Journalists get dozens of these every day, because essentially they create free advertising (and yet they must not, absolutely not, be misused for marketing/advertising purposes). For this reason it is important that they are eye-catching and contain all the essential facts, to provide the basic material for the journalists. A press release should therefore be succinct and not exceed 300-360 words (approx. 1 page). It should be factual, clear and use fairly neutral and restrained language.

Press releases have a particular format. The first – and perhaps most important – element is the heading. This needs to be catchy; otherwise the whole thing will go straight into the bin. The rest too should be compelling, and brief. The first paragraph should cover what’s become known as the 5 “W’s” – When, Who, What, Why and Where. A second paragraph typically contains a quote, perhaps by the CEO, or the head of research and development. Finally, the last paragraph should provide enough background information to enable the journalists to create their story. This also includes the basic facts about the company, a tiny bit of ist history, and its purpose.

A press release should avoid abarrage of fluffy clichés that everyone – especially media people – are tired of because they have seen them so many times. Much better to keep it crisp.

Ms Polig says that the format and style of press releases vary widely between different countries. And that this is where the translator needs to intervene and use their compency. She states that in Italy, for example, press releases are similar to newspaper articles and are written to “impress the journalist”. She then contrasts this with Germany, where press releases are “strictly factual, written in a clear and concise language”. Rhetorical flourishes so typical of the Romance languages are frowned upon. She therefore feels compelled to “totally restructure the text” when translating from Italian.

With regard to US press releases she points out that these typically use strong persuasive language. By this she means the exaggerated adjectives that I always tell the translators to ignore, i.e. words like “industry-leading”, “best-of-class”, “top-of-the-range”, “unparalleled”, “unique” etc.

If you look around for guidance on the Internet, German, Italian, French and English definitions of what a press release is and how one should go about writing one, are actually surprisingly similar, if not identical. The “how to” typically instruct authors to keep them factual and to avoid boastful “advertising” language and exaggerations. They also advise against a heavy nominal style, use of the passive tense, and intricate embedded clauses. When they mention “journalistic style” they mean informative, objective texts that do not contain any value judgements. Essentially, a press release should be worded in a neutral way and serve informational purposes for the sake of the reader, and not promotional aims for the company making the announcement.

For German, see here, for example: https://www.fx-kommunikation.de/pressemitteilung.php.

For Italian, see an example here: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comunicato_stampa, which includes:

  • deve contenere innanzitutto i riferimenti essenziali dell’organizzazione che lo emette (logo, carta intestata, ecc.); inoltre devono comparire data, ora e luogo di emissione;
  • deve trattare di un avvenimento avente i requisiti di notiziabilità e dev’essere breve, generalmente composto di 30 righe (una cartella)[1];
  • deve recare un titolo e quasi sempre un occhiello, che precedono e riassumono il contenuto;
  • il testo della notizia, essendo destinato soprattutto ai giornalisti, deve rispettare la regola delle cinque W e le informazioni devono essere chiare, attendibili e scritte con uno stile giornalistico.
  •  

French too, states the same objectives and rules, for example here:

https://jobphoning.com/dictionnaire/communique-de-presse#

Un communiqué de presse est un document rédigé directement à l’intention des journalistes. Il a pour mission de les informer de la sortie d’une offre produit, d’un évènement, d’une actualité majeure d’une entreprise, etc. Un communiqué de presse n’est donc pas un outil de promotion. En effet, les journalistes ciblés ne relaieront le contenu du communiqué qu’à la condition que ce dernier soit jugé comme intéressant et pertinent. Pour faire simple, ils n’acceptent pas qu’on essaye de forcer la publication.

C’est pour ces raisons qu’un communiqué de presse se doit d’être concis, clair, et pertinent dans son contenu. Un communiqué est donc une sorte de lettre d’information aux journalistes. Il s’agit donc d’un document de communication informatif, et pas réellement publicitaire. Il a pour but de synthétiser une information et doit être rédigé de sorte à ce que les journalistes qui le recevront puissent reprendre son contenu aisément afin de le relayer dans des titres de presse. A noter qu’il peut donc être relayé soit dans sa totalité, soit en partie.

De plus, l’objectif d’un communiqué est de susciter l’envie des journalistes de se pencher davantage sur l’entreprise et son activité. De ce fait, il faut bien avoir en tête que le contenu doit être impactant et pertinent car les journalistes reçoivent une quantité considérable de communiqués quotidiennement.

En termes de format, un communiqué idéal tient sur une page A4 et traite 5 questions principales : qui, quand, quoi, où, pourquoi.

And if you look for US-American guidelines on how to write a press release, you find numerous places telling you to make sure you have a good headline, include all the pertinent information, keep it short… and avoid clichés, jargon and overused phrases (concretely: award-winning, cutting-edge, game-changer, next-generation…).

It seems to me that it is not that the expectations, purpose and criteria for press releases are different in different countries. More likely, the authors writing them go against the established rules or best practices and follow their own inclination or idea of what a press release is. Or they are not not professional writers, but perhaps marketing people who like to use an overloaded style that is overburdened with clichés and terms that perhaps were new and trendy some years ago – but have now gone out of favour. Or the authors are simply not aware of the constraints that press releases are subject to – regardless of country.

But can it really be the job of the translator to take the matter in her/his own hands to this degree? Is it our remit to turn something that has ignored the editorial rules (in this case for press releases) into a piece of text that obeys those rules? Could this not be seen as overstepping our authority as translators? I am the first to say that the translator often knows better, but I also know that on many occasions it is best not to insist…

In the light of this I would caution translators to deviate too much from what they are given as a source. I would personally be worried at completely restructuring a press release, shortening it from 700 words down to 350, and leaving out details that I suspect might not really be needed. This is particularly risky if you are not an employee or a direct subcontractor of the company. What is legitimate, I would say is to cautiously tone down the language, leave out tautologies and superfluous, exaggerated adjectives. And perhaps split an overlong, complex sentence into two shorter ones, to improve legibility. But whatever you do, be prepared that you might be challenged even when you allow yourself such relatively minor editorial changes. You may well need to justify them towards your client.

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