Month: March 2015

Translation tip: Translate a bin’s contents not its colour

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This quick post was prompted by a translation that I stumbled across online today. The English version of a German company’s website described how much waste had been collected in the previous year. Everything read well, right up to the point where the translator chose to refer to the bins that the company used simply by their colour (one slightly altered example: Company XYZ put 10,000 tonnes in the blue bin). The problem is that no universal standards exist governing the colour of collection containers so telling the reader that a bin is blue does not help them understand what materials the company actually collected.

Let me illustrate this with an example: today is bin day (US: trash pick-up day) here in Kansas City and my blue recycling bin is awaiting collection. Kansas City operates what is known as single-stream recycling (British English: commingled collections) so I am allowed to place the following items in my blue bin according to city rules:

  • Office paper, junk mail, newspapers (without plastic rain bag), phone books, catalogs and magazines
  • Manila folders
  • Advertising inserts
  • Brochures
  • Corrugated cardboard
  • Carrier stock (i.e. cardboard soft drink and beer cartons)
  • Chipboard (i.e. cereal and shoe boxes)
  • Paper/hardback books
  • Plastic bottles with a neck #1 and #2 (look for the number inside the chasing arrow symbol), such as water and soda bottles, milk jugs and detergent bottles. Lids may now be recycled, too.
  • Plastic containers #3 thru #7 (look for the number inside the chasing arrow symbol), such as yogurt and margarine/butter tub containers
  • Cardboard egg cartons
  • Pizza boxes (No food)
  • Shredded paper (in paper bags)
  • Drink cartons
  • Aluminum cans and other metal cans
  • Clamshells (Deli or salad bar containers)
  • Aseptic containers (milk, juice and vegetable cartons)

That list is a pretty extensive.

The south-western German town of Karlsruhe – the last place where I lived before moving across the Atlantic – also has a blue bin. However, its contents are strictly limited to different types of paper and board, specifically loose paper, envelopes, newspapers, books, magazines, catalogues, leaflets, advertising, booklets, office and writing paper, folders, cardboard, cardboard packaging and paper packaging. No plastic. No metals. No cartons.

Just this one example makes it clear that a blue bin in one country is not the same as a blue bin in another country. In fact, bin colour can even differ from one town or region to another. That makes it really important for the translator to find out what materials are actually going in each bin and refer to the bin by its contents rather than its colour.