Language is a wonderful but dangerous thing.
I’ve lived and worked all my life with people of many nationalities; I learnt a little or a lot of some of their languages, and came to appreciate the different expressions and nuances from an early age. But when I got into business, I learnt the hard way of the dangers of getting it wrong.
Putting my foot in it
The first was where so many of us have tripped up – American v British English. I couldn’t say I hadn’t been warned. But at a dinner party on my first trip to the USA in the early 80’s, I still managed to say something that is innocent in British English but – unexpectedly – caused great offence to my American hosts (I’m not going to risk repeating it here).
Of course, it’s not as big an issue now. In that era there wasn’t as much sharing of TV programmes and media as there is now, and, on a somewhat remote farm in the Midwest, I was probably the first Brit they’d ever met.
Even a native can easily get it wrong
Fast forward a decade, and my business suddenly and urgently needed a lot of website text translating into Spanish. To save money, I let a colleague give the job to a hard-up and friendly Spanish economics student. It hadn’t occurred to me or him that she wouldn’t have or use a technical dictionary – the text was all about engineering stuff, so we simply assumed it would be OK.
Just as well that I’m reasonably fluent in Spanish and checked the result! There was a whole section on petroleum, which we’d referred to as “oil” in the text. The translator, however, got the idea that the text was about the oil used in salad dressing… Had the website gone live with the wrong translation, we’d have been a laughing stock – and, more worryingly, would almost certainly have lost a valuable contract.
The real dangers of bad translations are in business contracts
It’s of course much riskier when you don’t understand the language at all. Once, in setting up a business in Shanghai, I had to sign my life away on a number of long and complex contracts in Chinese, drafted by a Chinese lawyer. The lawyer provided English translations, and I had a Chinese associate in the UK check that they were correct.
What my associate didn’t tell me, though, was that some of the Chinese expressions in the contracts were open to alternative interpretations. I only found that out a few years later, when problems arose with the Shanghai company and we got embroiled in a legal dispute. The other side’s new lawyers read the agreements differently, and to our detriment. Fortunately, I’d still got the original ones on which I’d relied, and managed to resolve the issues (but only by the skin of my teeth).
Now, of course, we’ve got Google Translate and similar software tools. They’ve improved massively over a few years, and they’re great for social exchanges and “getting the gist” of something.
In fact, they’re so good that it’s easy to be complacent and assume they’re always giving the right translation. Not so, as I found out when pursuing an urgent trade dispute in Portuguese (where I only know enough to be dangerous). The other party wrote in Portuguese and I wrote back in English – and they relied on software to translate. Nothing terrible happened in the end, but the dispute lasted much longer and was much more unpleasant than it would have been had the parties understood each other perfectly throughout.
Moral – where your business depends on it, never skimp on translation.
Get translations done professionally by natives qualified to understand the subject matter. Don’t rush them and risk corners being cut. If it’s legal, check that there’s no known risk of misinterpretation. If it’s marketing, check that the language is commercially oriented. Have the resulting translation checked by others.
I was reminded of this when I recently met Helen Provart, the CEO of Peak Translations, and recorded an interview with her for our Grow through International Expansion podcast series – you can hear it here.
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