Lost in translation: The perils of international communication

1st July 2016

For me, good communication depends on building emotional connections and considering the feelings of others, as well their need for information. It requires a balanced conversation with the right verbal and non-verbal communications, listening, and a respect for differences of opinion.

Lost in translation This is particularly important when organisations communicate internationally. The desire for a globally consistent brand and approach needs to be carefully weighed against the importance of ensuring your message ‘lands’ and is sensitive to how things are done locally. With this in mind, here are a few points to avoid some of the potential perils of international communication.

George Bernard Shaw 1. Language
As George Bernard Shaw once said, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” This is true not just for England and America. Every country has its own dialects, idioms and words.

My last in-house communication role was for a British company that was majority-owned by the Qatari state oil company, so we issued our press releases in English and Arabic.

When I needed to arrange for the Arabic translation to be done in London, our Qatari general manager asked me to check where the translator was from.

According to him, the Arabic spoken in the Gulf States has a lot of slang and colloquialisms while Syrian Arabic is considered more “pure” (i.e. less tainted by Western influences.)

However, in his view, finding an Egyptian translator was the preferred option as a lot of Arab language TV is produced in Egypt, so it’s the dialect that most people in the Middle East understand.

Protestors 2. The law
I previously worked for an American company that needed to make changes to its operations in Europe. Some of the senior leaders were surprised that they couldn’t just sell a business, close a plant or make people redundant in the way that they could in the U.S. because employees have more protection in Europe. This means that companies have to consult with the employees, unions or work councils before they take significant action and provide them with sufficient time to review your plans, provide feedback and, in some cases, come up with alternative proposals.

As you’d expect, consumer rights, copyright, licensing, and advertising standards are different in different countries as well, meaning that your global marketing campaign may need to be tailored for each market using alternative words and contract terms.

I recently attended a Chartered Institute of Public Relations event where the keynote speaker was Lord Bilimoria, the founder of Cobra Beer. In his speech, he explained that a ban on the use of advertising for alcoholic beverages in India meant that he had to use public relations much more extensively to promote his brand there than in other markets.

Therefore, researching a country’s legal idiosyncrasies before you launch your global campaign is a wise investment of your time.

Asian businesswoman 3. The right spokespeople for the right audience

Whenever I’ve worked on global campaigns, I’ve tried, where possible, to use local employees as external spokespeople rather than someone from head office. Not only do they speak the language and understand the local market and customs better but they normally have more credibility with their audience. In a crisis situation, they are also more likely to be able to appreciate the full impact of a situation, be perceived as being able to do something about it and can respond more quickly than someone in a different time zone.

One of the few exceptions to the ‘local is best’ approach that I’ve experienced was when I worked on a launch campaign in Spain. In that case, the local management team specifically asked for senior leaders from overseas to be involved so as to add weight to the launch with the local media and to explain how what we were doing in that market fitted into the company’s global launch plans.

4. Culture, images and symbols
Another potential peril to consider with international communication is what particular images or symbols mean in different cultures. In the Western world, an open hand is perceived as welcoming, demonstrating open behavior. However, if it’s a left hand, in many parts of the Muslim world, that’s considered the ‘toilet wiping’ hand–hardly the best brand association. Similarly, the soles of the feet and use of animals may not be appropriate images to use in communications in Muslim countries or communities either.

Chinese lift In Western cultures, the number 13 is unlucky, but in China it’s the number 4 or any numbers including a four that are unlucky. The image here shows a Chinese lift that respectfully avoids 4, 13 and 14 so that everyone will think that this is a lucky building!

Some cultural sensitivities are harder to know about unless you’ve spent some time there. I had a colleague who was running a media training session for communicators in Nigeria. One of the golden rules if you are being interviewed on camera is that you should always maintain eye contact to avoid looking insincere.

However, in Nigeria, as a sign of respect, people are taught not to look directly at someone who is older or more senior to them, which resulted in most of the participants staring at the floor throughout their TV interview practice.

Similarly, a lot of companies practice the principle of 360-degree feedback, where managers are encouraged to seek feedback from their team and their peers as well as their line manager. However, in more traditional and hierarchical cultures, such as Japan, if a junior member of staff gave honest feedback to a senior manager in an open forum, this would likely be embarrassing for everyone in the room. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have a 360-degree feedback system in these countries, it’s just that you may want to tweak the approach so that the feedback is given in an appropriate environment.

African drumming 5. Channels
One other area where international communications can get lost in translation is when you don’t use appropriate channels for your audience. In one example, an international consumer brand had to evaluate its channels for communicating with their thousands of seasonal workers in East Africa who picked its tea harvest each year. A tea picker is normally at their most skilled when they are 16-26 years of age (i.e. young, experienced and fast). This is also the age group that has the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS cases, yet often has the poorest understanding of good sexual health practices. In short, people were dying–and the company was losing a significant number of its best workers.

My partner was asked by this firm to help develop a sexual health awareness campaign for their workforce. With little access to technology, a high level of illiteracy and over 27 separate languages spoken among the workers, this wasn’t as straightforward as it sounds.

In many communities where people can’t read and write, oral storytelling and music are important ways to share information. With this in mind, my partner worked with the local team to develop a campaign in Swahili (often the common language among communities in certain parts of Africa) that used song and dance to explain to their employees how to protect themselves against infection. Tribal elders were engaged in the process, as the weight that their views carried was significant. The success of this campaign resulted in significantly lower new infection rates among the company’s employees.

Lastly, it’s sometimes easy to forget that there are still a lot of people working in areas like manufacturing, retail, hospitality and mining that may not have access to a PC or tablet. Similarly, the Wi-Fi or mobile reception 2,000 feet underground in your company’s copper mine or 300 miles offshore on your company’s oil rig might not be as good as it is in the head office. If you’re planning a global employee communication program aimed at these “offline” audiences, you may have to incorporate more traditional communication channels such as staff meetings, notice boards or messages on payslips.

Global communication is all about getting to know your audience and, with sensitivity and understanding, there is no reason why your message should get lost in translation.

Daniel Schraibman is a Director of Serekinti.