Translating the babble | VailDaily.com

Translating the babble

Matt ZalaznickDaily City Editor

Reporters going from a town council meeting to an interview with an environmentalist to a car crash sometimes feel like they’re moving among the floors of the Tower of Babel. They get the news from people who speak a variety of languages – all English, but all dialects laced with a sometimes mind-boggling array of technical terms, acronyms and arcane phrases. One of our jobs is to throw out the confusing acronyms, and translate this governmentese and enviro-speak into plain talk that our readers can understand. Not because they’re dumb, but because people who read the paper didn’t all study land planning, criminology or hydro-engineering in college. We are all lay people outside our expertise. Even the most well-read of many of us can’t define “conservation easement,” “in-stream flow,” “destination guest” or “upzoning moratorium.” Few would have any idea what our friends were talking about were they to use any of these phrases during a chat at happy hour. A newspaper’s job is to explain that those phrases, respectively, are preserving land, water levels, a tourist who comes to visit from outside Colorado, and banning new subdivisions. Sometimes these code words are how specialized agencies like the State Patrol or the water department function or save time. Sometimes they’re just ways to make people feel like they’re part of an exclusive club with its own secret language. We have our own goofy phrases in the newsroom. Instead of saying photo caption, we insist on writing “cutlines;” we call the second paragraph the “nut graph;” it makes us feel more professional to say things like “subhead,” “breakbox,” “bug” and “city editor.” How can you have a city editor when there isn’t a city within dozens and dozens of miles? Well, the Vail Daily has a city editor. Go figure. The hard part of translation lies in not oversimplifying the jargon, because there is a risk of losing important shades of meaning. For example, concerning the push to expand the board of county commissioners to five members, among other potential changes in county government (through a means called “home rule”), we can call the concept “government reform,” but calling it “government repair” would be over-heated and “government change” would just be dull.Remember, one of our priorities is to attract readers’ attention. Another tough part is when those who use the jargon complain that our translations are too heavy handed or sensational. In a recent issue of the Vail Daily, we wrote about a county proposal to impose restrictions preventing landowners from asking to build more on their land than what is currently allowed – this is the so-called “upzoning moratorium.” In the story’s headline, we called the proposal “building restrictions,” which doesn’t tell the whole story yet is still accurate. But the photo on the front page that referred readers to the story came with the headline “The last roof ever built?” That’s over the top (pun intended).Beyond jargon, there also are times when we think language can be more precise. When an environmentalist tells us the Eagle River has “water-quality issues,” we’ll use the phrase “pollution.” After all, the aim here is to tell it like it really is, in plain talk, neither hyped nor in euphemism. City Editor Matt Zalaznick can be reached at mzalaznick@vaildaily.com or 949-0555, ext. 606. Vail, colorado