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Common Sense Advisory Blogs
A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words, Not Just One
Posted by Nataly Kelly on September 11, 2008  in the following blogs: Business Globalization, Translation and Localization, Interpreting, Technology, Best Practices
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Every few months, we hear about a supposedly groundbreaking development in the field of multilingual communications that claims to replace interpreters or translators – picture cards. The media often heralds these "innovations" as a brilliant new way to overcome language barriers. After all, pictures are universal, right? That’s probably what the Nazca culture thought when creating those geoglyphs.

If the idea of using flash cards to hold a conversation with a limited English proficient person strikes you as somewhat condescending, you’re absolutely correct. Such cards are frequently used to communicate – not with people who speak other languages, but with small children and individuals with special needs. Even in those cases, experts acknowledge that pictures alone are insufficient to convey meaning. In order to communicate ideas, images must be accompanied by another important thing – words.

For this reason, the Swedish Institute for Special Needs Education, which first began using pictograms 16 years ago, has issued the picture-based tools in 13 different European languages. As it notes in a paper that explains why pictures should not be used to communicate across languages, "It is a common misconception that the meaning of Picto images can be guessed. Images are always ambiguous."

So when we learned that police in the United Kingdom are using picture cards to "put together a suspect’s description without having to wait for a translator," this immediately raised some eyebrows. These reportedly "crime-fighting cards," produced by Pocket Comms, are being tested in several regions with large populations of Eastern European migrant workers.

Thanks to the cards, witnesses can point to different physical aspects of a suspect to help police with identification. We’d like to suggest that pictograms also be available to convey the following:
  • "Pointing is rude in my culture."

  • "I’m sorry, I left my reading glasses at home."

  • "The man was dressed in a gorilla costume. Where’s the picture for that?"

  • "Yes, the man shot me and my brother ran after him. Let me show you what my brother looks like..."
Pictures can be helpful in some circumstances – as learning aids, as supports for individuals with low literacy, as supplemental ways of providing information, and in some cases, as tools in emergency settings where no other option – including phone lines – can be accessed. In fact, we’ve written about the increased role of pictograms in our language services industry predictions for 2020. But on its own, picture-based communication is to today’s available language technologies what smoke signals are to email.

Victims of crimes would likely shudder at the idea of leaving their attackers’ identification to "picture boards," and so do we. Instead of spending 10 minutes looking at pictures and trying to guess what each other intend to communicate, we have a groundbreaking language innovation to suggest to the bobbies. There's this new-fangled gizmo we've heard about, an "apparatus for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically." Amazingly, it enables an interpreter to be connected within a matter of seconds, anywhere in the world. Someone, call Scotland Yard.

 

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Keywords: Interpreting, Interpreting technologies, Language policy, Telephone interpreting

  
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