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When Bilingual isn’t Enough

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: November 26, 2019

It was a simple enough decision. A large engineering company I know of decided that, in advance of its sales meeting with a big buyer, they would translate the questionnaire he sent them. Surely, the best people to translate it would be their in-house French-speakers. On the face of it, it seems like a reasonable decision but the consequences of that decision say a lot about the risks businesses face when they expand abroad.

We all do it. We have a tweet we need to read or a document we need to get the gist of, so we throw it at Google Translate or some similar service. If we are lucky enough to know someone who speaks that language, we might ask them to give us a hand.

Often, that’s enough. Few people really need a professional Spanish translation of the latest perfume recommendation from their favourite Instagram influencer or a full explanation of that long rant from a Dutch person on Facebook. When all you need is the gist and nothing of great importance hinges on the result, machine translation is great.

Using Bilingual Staff

Sometimes, however, things are a bit more important than that. Maybe you really do need to know how your company was talked about in that article or, like the engineering company I mention at the top, you need to fill in a questionnaire or respond to a letter written in another language.

At such times, businesses will often turn to their own bilingual staff. Once again, that will sometimes work. Your own staff might be fantastic at shooting off a letter explaining your prices or giving you a fuller explanation of how your company was covered in a recent Cantonese magazine or reviewed on a Portuguese web page.

But sometimes even that isn’t enough.

When Being Bilingual isn’t Enough

For the engineering company I mentioned earlier, what went wrong was that their staff knew their jobs perfectly but missed some nuances in the questionnaire. That meant that the company’s responses made it look like they didn’t give a hoot about the quality of their products.

That would only come to light after a pretty tough discussion in the middle of a negotiation and a little interpreting fix I have written about elsewhere. In that particular case, a couple of little slips at the wrong moment nearly cost the company millions of pounds in lost sales.

Small decisions can have big consequences.

A good rule of thumb is to call in a language professional whenever getting it wrong could have massive consequences.

If your website is going to appear in another language, hiring a professional website translator or professioanl bilingual copywriter instead of asking someone in-house to do it will be the difference between a website that increases sales and one that ends up as another story of translation gone wrong.

If you are heading to a business negotiation or key conference, hiring a professional interpreter – rather than bringing along an untrained bilingual – will often be the difference between winning a new client and having to deal with confusion.

Knowing the Difference

It’s certainly not true that businesses need to hire professional translators and interpreters every time there is some kind of linguistic difference. And it certainly is true that having multilingual, multicultural staff in your company will be of great benefit. It’s also true that sometimes you really need a professional translator or interpreter.

Most people know instinctively the difference between illnesses that you can self-diagnose and self-treat and those where you really need to see a doctor. We also know that, if we delay going to the doctor too long, it can cause real problems for us down the line.

The same is true when it comes to languages. Sometimes, you need Google Translate, sometimes you need a bilingual member of staff and when it really matters most, you really need professional translators and interpreters.

If you would like help understanding exactly when and how to get te best out of professional translators and interpreters in your business, drop me an email to arrange a free, no obligation Zoom call.

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