Parlez-vous français?

. . . . I sure don’t but I had interesting experiment last semester communicating in a language I don’t know the first thing about! To clarify, I am talking about ENGL-712 Communicating in Multilingual Environments. As part of the final project for the class, we had to find a foreign language site and use Google Translate  to try and not just write a post or comment on the site, but get actual responses back from the other users.  I chose a French site thinking that since two kids are learning French, they might be able to help me out if I got in a bind. Wishful thinking that was, but it was still a fascinating experiment.  This was just a small part of a semester long class in understanding how a company that  has international clients that don’t speak English as their primary language, communicates with these clients.

I ended up enjoying this class so much that when I took ENGL-637 this summer, I focused on a small local company that had found themselves becoming an International company without really planning on it. They are a manufacturing company and they have quite a few instruction manuals that they are in the process of updating.  I went in intent on finding out how they handle (or take into consideration) their international clients as they are updating the manuals. Do they translate them? Do they do any adjusting for translation on the other end? What special things do they need to take into consideration as they write manuals with  non-native English speakers as their end users?  The answer I found out pretty quickly was – NOTHING.  They found translating to be cost prohibitive (which it is even for large companies) and since they are selling their machinery to a middle man – a distributor – they seem to be legally covered safety-wise without needing to translate the documents. I also found their attitude to be similar to Thatcher’s (2010) comment:

“Unfortunately, this kind of ethnocentrism—assuming that another culture will simply use digital media the same way as your own—is actually quite common in much U.S. research and theory, a point I discuss more thoroughly elsewhere (Thatcher, 2005).” (p. 170)

When I asked more questions about their lack of translation, the comment was, (I am paraphrasing here) “Oh we don’t need to worry about it,  Everyone we deal with speaks English really well”.  I was pretty shocked!  Interestingly enough, when I posed a similar question to my husband, whose company is also International, he said almost the exact same thing.  When  I asked my husband about translating legal documents, he said they have the plant in that location hire a translator to do that. Similarly, the company I worked with this summer relies on the end user to do all translating.  When I asked my husband how they know the document (in his case usually contracts) says what they want it to say, he kind of stared at me with a blank face.  When I pointed out to the summer company that their distributors may be able to speak English but (a) it is probably British English (and there is a difference) and (b) just because they can speak it doesn’t mean they can read it well enough to put machinery together,

they stared at me with blank faces (I love stumping people with an attitude!). In both cases, they just don’t know what they don’t know.  The company from ENGL-637 is just now venturing into putting all of their documents online in digital format with the intent of eventually having it be an interactive online-help system. If their digital literacy is anything like their  (albeit, currently being upgraded) manual-writing-system literacy where international clients are concerned, they will need more help than they realize.  Digital literacy is still a new and expanding field even in our own country, much less understanding how other countries will use this form of communication. Unfortunately, our embarrassing ethnocentric attitude may get in the way of ever being completely digitally literate where foreign clients are concerned.

Posted on November 10, 2013, in Literacy, Society, Workplace and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Good points about everything that can be lost when we don’t convert user manuals to the language of the end users, even if they do speak passable English. There are many subtleties in English that may be important to understand, especially in a context like putting together machinery where safety should be a concern.

    I have heard, though, of some companies shifting the responsibility of translation of user manuals to their end users who may be in another country and speak that country’s language. This is sometimes an effective business model because it can be easier and cheaper for someone who knows English (and also the pitfalls of English) on the side of the end users to do the translation rather than having someone who does not understand the nuances of the other language translate on the English end. As long as an effective translation happens somewhere, I’m not sure it matters whether it is the initial company or the end user doing it.

    • Yes – this company would leave translation up to the end user. What I was able to point out to them is there are simple things you can do on this end to make sure the translation is more accurate. I am not sure if their distributers even bother to translate the documents or just muddle through. I was dying to find out but was not allowed access for fear of real easing confidential information.

  2. This does bring up a good question – whose responsibility is it to do the translation? The manufacturer? The distributor? Or, the end user who chose to purchase a product from a foreign country?

    Before I share what I think the answer is, let me share an experience. Our company provides a lot of patient education materials to our physician clients. Over the years, we would repeatedly get requests for Spanish version of these documents. One of the spouses of an employee spoke fluent Spanish and tried taking a stab at this project for us. What we discovered is that she wasn’t necessarily fluent with all of the different dialects of Spanish. We ended up hiring a translation company to do it for us, but it still took some work from there as our materials have some specific medical-related terms. But I’m so glad we took the time to do this! Several of our customers use these and are very appreciative.

    So, we didn’t necessarily feel that it was our responsibility to provide translated pieces (as the manufacturer), but we still created them as a convenience to our clients (the distributor) so they could ensure understanding with the end user (the patient).

    I look at it this way – providing translated materials equals added value and great customer service! Of course, every situation is going to be different and every company’s allocated resources for projects like this are going to vary, but, in our instance, it was a beneficial thing to do.

  3. Thanks for sharing the details from both course experiences [and your husband’s opinion too!] Down the road I think you could probably turn this into your field project if the company you worked with is still looking for your input and recommendations!

  4. This was a really useful case study for me to think about because I work in an environment where we embrace multiculturalism and languages (in theory, anyway), but we don’t offer our website in English because, I suppose, we are assuming that if students are fluent enought to get a degree here, then they must read anough English to negotiate a website. Anyway, again, in theory, we are all globally minded, etc.

    So, if I decide to hit the civilian job hunting path, I would need to realize that this issue of translation could come up often and I may encounter significant resistance (or blank looks!).

    Thanks for the insight about the classes. I think I’d really enjoy English 712.

  5. Mais oui, je parle un peu de français! Okay, not the point… This was a really interesting post and an excellent example of our nonchalant ethnocentrism. I do wonder though, how do we decide whose responsibility it is to translate? And is it always necessary? It is an interesting question that I don’t really have a good answer for, because I really think that it can change. I definitely think that we need to consider our primary audience and communicate to them clearly. But what if we have a single company out of many that speaks a different language? Do we need to accommodate them? And is it practical if they aren’t our primary audience?

    I think that we have to end up defining our audience, as one of the readings pointed out. And sometimes it will be, unfortunately, a choice that doesn’t make things convenient for customers from another culture, whether because of cost constraints or logistics. It may just not be possible. I don’t like that, but I do think that, as you illustrated, that is the way things go sometimes.

    • The question of who should translate comes up frequently in articles in this area. At the end of the day, I think it depends on why you are translating – is it for legal reasons? If so, then I think the originating company would do the translation in order to cover themselves legally. At the end of the day, translation is very expensive – you pay by the word – so if you have a small company with numerous different language needs from their clients, there is just no way you can afford translation. Ford Motor Co. does an interesting thing – they have created a sort of “standardization” dictionary for all the terms they use and no matter what country you are in, each word means the same thing. They also created their own personalized, internal version of google translate so, along with the standard vocabulary, translating is much easier to do.

      I think the more important lesson for American companies to learn is that, for example, our language uses a lot of sport references and idioms. Those never translate properly. If you can edit your writing to be simplistic and straight forward, no matter who does the translating, you will have a much more successful outcome.

  6. Hi, thanks for sharing your ideas! I have to disagree with you a little. I don’t think we, Americans, are entirely ethnocentric. In fact, after World War II, when the United States became a global superpower, it became common for residents of other countries to speak English. It’s just the way the world came to be — we controlled many entities and people wanted to learn English so they could communicate with us and gain our business. However, I think when it comes to traveling and Americans not learning the language beforehand, we are definitely ethnocentric.

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