Lost in Translation



Over the past 30 years, I’ve have daily interactions with business colleagues across the globe and have had the opportunity to travel to many corners of the world.  I seem to have one of those faces that can easily blend in and across a lot of places and cultures.  The recent addition of the beard has only added to the repertoire.  That’s not always a good thing and can lead to misunderstanding.  As a typical American, I stubbornly only speak English.  You know how it goes, we Americans believe all that’s required to speak a foreign language is to speak English - only slower and louder.   That’s only managed to get me in more trouble in a lot of places.  My standard reply - when a shop clerk in Tegucigalpa or a waiter in Agadir start chatting in their native tongue -  is to say “sorry” and shrug my shoulders.  I guess that’s better than some who would instead glare back at the speaker and simply say “English!”. 



I am honestly embarrassed about the Spanish thing.  I’ve been traveling throughout Latin America for more than half my life and live in Florida - where it seems half the population speaks only Spanish.   Eventually I’ll go for one of those week-long immersion courses in Guatemala, but now I’m basically limited to ordering beers and asking for directions to the toilet.  The Berlitz tapes only got me as far as “el coche es un Chevrolet.” 

Of course, English remains the international business language.  For Americans it easy to get lulled into the assumption that your English “enabled” foreign colleague is fluent in the nuances of the language.  English is said to be amongst the more complicated languages to learn, since there are so many words with multiple meanings.  Hell, the following is a grammatically correct sentence in the English language: 
                           Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. 
You're welcome to Google it, if you don’t believe me.

Speaking of Google, I’ll have to admit that I’ve made use of their translation programs more than a few times.  They have a mobile app that is supposed to be able to instantly translate signs or written text from/to dozens of languages simply by holding your phone up to the text. The program is a bit wonky and the literal translation of menu items can be downright confusing.  A few years ago, I used it in a Shanghai restaurant specializing in grilled meats and one of the menu items translated as, “carbon burns black bowel.”  I’m still not sure if that was describing the dish or the aftermath of consuming it?  It was a toss up between that or the “chicken rude and unreasonable.”

I know I’ve had lengthy email communication chains with counterparts in Peru that made use of Google Translate on both ends.  By the sixth or seventh reply to a reply, the translation starts to resemble that old telephone game – the one where you whisper a story into the first person’s ear and they do the same down the line.  By the time the story reaches the last person, it’s completely changed.  As complicated as it is for me as an English-speaking American to communicate with a Spanish speaker, I can only imagine the confusion on both sides, when – as an example - a native Spanish speaker and a native Korean speaker must negotiate business in English. 

The demand for immediate feedback has pushed most of us from email to text, WhatsApp, Slack and similar instant messaging apps and programs.  That need for instant feedback has further eroded the cultural mores typically associated with formal business communications.  Everything needs to be fast and short.  It doesn’t help that we have a president who prefers to communicate often coarsely and cryptically via Twitter.   Like Mr. Trump, I’m a New Yorker by birth.  Though I’ve lived in the south for the past 30 years, those New York roots run deep.  Consequently, I’ve never been shy about expressing my opinion. In that respect, I share a common trait with my Dutch colleagues.  They tend to say what they think and have little concern for bruising egos.  For them, arguing is a sport.  They rarely hold a grudge.  In an attempt at getting the upper hand on a Dutch colleague, I reminded him that we were having our argument in English – therefore claiming supremacy.  He was not impressed.

That bluntness doesn’t always register the same across cultural lines.  The lack of filter can be jarring to some.  Mix that with a lack of fluency in the language used to communicate that message and there is a perfect recipe for misunderstanding.    Like most discussions with my wife, I am often finding myself apologizing but unsure exactly what I did or said wrong.

Conversely, I have been involved in transactions that went sour because one party or the other was unwilling to admit they did not understand the message or intention of the other.  There may be a fear that admitting a lack of understanding is a show of weakness.   That can be exceptionally dangerous, when -as an example - a Russian speaking ship’s captain must reply to questions from a very heavily southern-accented American Coast Guard officer.  Things can go sour very quickly – resulting in delays, fines or detention of a vessel.

Though I’ve read eagerly about the promise of wearable, instantaneous translation devices coming on the market, I’m not holding my breath.  The first generation will likely work no better than the Google Translate app and a Chinese restaurant menu; perhaps starting a few fights instead of defusing them.  Until that technology is truly available, we all need to learn to see the world from the perspective of the person on the other side of the conversation.  Endeavor to keep the message as direct and simple as possible, until you are sure that you and your counterpart are really understanding each other. 

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