Sunday, June 22, 2008

Chinese Bathroom Instructions

I recently received a contract that looked like Chinese bathroom instructions in English.

I was trying to rewrite it to at least make some of it make sense, when the scrambled prepositions, invented verbs and incomplete sentences made me snap: "What the hell am I doing? Don't they have lawyers to write these things? Don't they get paid for this language? If I turned in a script like this a publisher would make paper airplanes out of it."

Then I realized that this contract had never been written by anybody who spoke English. It was probably a bad translation from an anime or manga contract. Since not all Asian countries are signatories of the Berne Convention, a contract written without consideration of its requirements could land both publisher and author in a signatory country in a big chocolate-colored mess.

Look, contracts are not that hard. I've written completely binding contracts in a single page, and that included the signature blocks. For four-figure jobs. Here's the trick: the longer and sloppier the contract, the more loopholes. The shorter, dryer and more clear, the better for everybody. Better to say what IS allowed than what ISN't allowed. "Reasonable" is a good contract word. Nobody can "absolutely" or "completely" anything (any of us writing contracts with gods?). Stay out of the deep water if all you need is wading rights. Stick to plain language and keep it short.

Don't drive yourselves -- author or publisher -- crazy trying to write language the lawyers should know how to write. Do either of you get paid like a lawyer?

I didn't think so.

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