In culture, in speaking and in writing, clear communication is a major component in international business. But what seems clear in one context or one culture can be totally foreign in another. Even within English, the simple question, “Do you have a rubber?” to Americans can evoke some shock, assuming that the requester wants a condom. But if the requester is British, he or she is simply asking for an eraser (and is likely to phrase the question as, “Have you got a rubber?”). Similarly, the Scottish B&B owner who asks her American male guest, “When shall I knock you up in the morning, dearie?” is not asking for a morning sexual fling. Instead, she’s asking at what time he wants to be awakened.
When dealing with non-English cultures, accurate translations are even more essential. But these do not involve merely restating words. Instead, translations should also acculturate the text to reflect the target country as much as possible.
For example, this text was a direct translation into English from a German file about company valuations:
[box]The question of what a company or a share therein is actually worth may arise for a number of reasons. In addition to tax events (inheritance and gift tax), such assessments play an important role in the arrangements for a company succession, in the admission of new shareholders, in the drafting of compensation clauses in articles of association, or in the context of disputes. Company and office evaluations are also regularly necessary for establishing an adequate purchase price.[/box]
While the translation is comprehensible and technically accurate, it sounds very stiff to the English ear. Instead, the translation can be acculturated to read:
[box]The need to value a company or corporate shares may arise for a number of reasons. These include inheritance and gift tax calculations, arranging for a company succession, admitting new shareholders, drafting compensation clauses in articles of association, or resolving disputes. Company and office evaluations are also regularly needed to establish an adequate purchase price.[/box]
To begin the translation process, many executives make some incorrect assumptions:
1) If you can speak a language, you can translate or interpret.
- This may be true for simple conversations or dialogs. But it emphatically does not hold when rendering any technical terminology as most brochures, websites, videos, apps, contracts and manuals and meetings are. Business translating (written communication) and interpreting (spoken communication) require advanced degrees to learn properly. Relying on your cousin who used to live there or your co-worker who came from there invites problems: How well does he or she know your business terminology in the target language? Does he or she use a native, non-standard dialect? How can you verify whether your person knows correct grammar? (Most English writers don’t).
2) We can use our in-house, foreign-born employees to interpret at meetings.
- Even foreign students who get American MBAs do not know how to say typical export or accounting terms in their native language; they learned these concepts in English. The same is true for your foreign-born engineers unless they specifically learned your industry vocabulary.
- And interpreting at meetings is very mentally taxing. Professional best practice is to have two interpreters for any session lasting over three hours. Each interpreter works for 20-30 minutes and then rests while the other interpreter is on. Only this method prevents mistakes.
3) We can rely on Google Translate.
- Machine translation (MT), as this software is called, has greatly improved from the day when a simple letter opening with “Dear Marcel, How are your wife and kids?” was rendered into French as “Dear Marcel, How are your wife and baby goats?” Nevertheless, MT should never be used for anything promotional. This includes brochures, websites, videos or even contracts. MT is useful to get the gist or sense of what some foreign document says. But MT still makes major mistakes that can damage your company’s reputation and image, and it does not work well with complex sentences and many Asian languages.
Professional translating, interpreting and localizing require linguists who:
- Have advanced degrees or equivalent experience in this field;
- Work into their native languages;
- Speak your subject terminology (Law, Software, Marketing, Manufacturing, Biology, Automotive, etc.);
- Have ten or more years of ongoing experience;
- Can work with Translation Memories that capture recurring words or phrases and re-call them when they appear in the same file or new files; and
- Have the training to work accurately, quickly and efficiently.
Finally, it is important to use an experienced language agency that:
- Knows the terminology of your subject;
- Uses two-three translators per language and per project to guarantee accuracy;
- Can lay out your translations in each language so that they resemble your original file;
- Can do a wide range of European, Asian, African and Indian languages;
- Can acculturate translations so they sound natural and appropriate in the target country; and
- Provides outstanding service and value as a one-stop shop.