Saturday, May 13, 2006

Intercultural Word for the Day: Translation

Some words do not translate well across cultures and languages. Companies like Babelfish provide an online translation tool that is becoming more popular in converting written text in one language into another (i.e., English to Spanish). Note to the wise, be careful when relying on an online tool to translate your message, as words are often times lost in translation. The message sent, is not always the message received. In translation efforts, it is crucial that translations are researched and reviewed by cultural experts in each language. It is very important to use expert translators that understand cultural metaphors, cultural taboos, cultural slang, and cultural perceptions.

A personal realization of this translation issue occurred when a Chinese counterpart was invited to an American “Brown-Bag” meeting. To the American workforce a brown-bag meeting is a lunch meeting. Global brown-bag meetings may be lunch in one region and the middle of the night for another. To my Chinese counterpart the brown-bag held no meaning. I was asked, “What is a brown-bag?” The light went on. Terms we use everyday may not be understood across geographies.

Some examples of global blunders include urban legends. A fun book to read on international translation faux pas is by David A. Ricks, titled, Blunders in International Business. Although, every story has two sides, the General Motors (GM) example of the Chevy Nova doing poorly in Spanish speaking countries is a classic. Urban legend or not, it sure emphasizes the importance of translation. The message was sent and received loud and clear. "No VA" in Spanish translates to "No Go" in English. Even if sales were high, they can always be higher. Don’t lose because you overlook the important aspect of translation. Be careful what you decide to translate.

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