Lost in translation – the perils of international communications

For me, good communication depends on building an emotional connection with someone. It’s about considering their feelings as well their need for information. It often requires a balanced conversation, where you use the right verbal and non-verbal communications so that you understand each other, give each other space to talk, take time to listen, and be respectful of differences of opinion.

This is particularly important when organisations communicate internationally. The desire for a globally consistent brand and approach needs to be carefully weighed up against the importance of ensuring your message ‘lands’ and is sensitive to how things are done locally. With this in mind, I thought I would share a few points that I have learned about how to avoid some of the potential perils of international communications.

Language

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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 so, for example, Filipino English will be distinct from Irish English or Ghanaian English and so one size is rarely going to fit all.

My last in-house communications role was for a British company that was majority-owned by the Qatari state oil company and 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 whilst 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, and so this is the Arabic dialect that most people in the Middle East understand.

I also experienced this richness of variety and potential linguistic sensitivities when I spent some months travelling around South America. I particularly loved Argentina. However, I also learned that it has a difficult relationship with its neighbour Chile so if you’re trying to engage with a Chilean audience, it would be wise not to use an Argentine Spanish dialect.

2) The law

I previously worked for an American company which needed to make some 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 US because employees have more protection in Europe. This means that you have to consult with the employees, unions or works councils before you take significant action.

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In some countries, such as Spain, the unions have a lot of influence and can actually stop you from doing what you want to do if you don’t manage things in the right way. Ensuring that you give employees or their representatives sufficient time to review your plans, be able to provide feedback and, in some cases, come up with alternative proposals, can make the difference between being able to implement the actions you want on the ground or not.

Of course, the law doesn’t just affect employee rights, it can influence how you engage with other stakeholders too. For example, I was involved in the community consultation for a proposed new power station in the UK and, in the last few years, the law has changed so that you now have to pre-consult with the local community before the actual consultation i.e. you need to explain what you’re thinking of doing and give the local people a chance to provide input before you set out your final plans.

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

In another example, I recently attended a Chartered Institute of Public Relations event at the UK Houses of Parliament where the main 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.

So spending some time finding out about a country’s legal idiosyncrasies before you launch your global campaign, is a wise investment of time.

3) The right spokespeople for the right audience

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4) Culture, images and symbols 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.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 are able to respond quicker than someone on a different time zone.I have a personal view that, with the right training, preparation and support from their communications team, there is no reason why any leader can’t be a good communicator. The key point for me is about matching the right spokesperson with the right audience. I have found it helpful for the companies I’ve worked for to have a mix of representatives, with some able to talk about any topic at a high level and others acting as technical experts to talk about a specific area in more detail.

Another potential peril to consider with international communications is what particular images or symbols mean in different cultures. In the Western world, an open hand is perceived as welcoming,  demonstrating open behaviour. 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.

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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 below from a Chinese lift respectfully avoids 4, 13 and 14 so that everyone will think that this is a lucky building!

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Some cultural sensitivities are harder to know about unless you’ve spent some time there. I had a colleague that 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 made for quite a challenging course where most of the participants stared at the floor throughout their TV interview practice.

Similarly, a lot of companies sign up to 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 might want to tweak the approach so that the feedback is given in an appropriate environment.

5) Channels

One other area where international communications can get ‘lost in translation’ is when you don’t use the best channels for your audience. In one example, an international consumer brand employed thousands of seasonal workers in East Africa to pick its tea harvest each year. A tea picker is normally at their most skilled when they are 16- 26 years 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 amongst the workers, this wasn’t as straightforward as it sounds.

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In many communities where people can’t read and write, oral storytelling and music are important ways to share information. With this in mind, she worked with the local team to develop a campaign in Kiswahili (often the ‘common’ language amongst tribes 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 and asked to help deliver the message, as the weight that their views carried was significant. The success of this campaign resulted in significantly lower new infection rates amongst  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 might not have access to a PC or tablet. Similarly, the Wi-Fi or mobile reception 2,000ft 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 head office.

With this in mind, if you’re planning a global employee communications programme aimed at these ‘offline’ audiences, you may have to incorporate some more traditional communications channels such as staff meeting discussions, using notice boards or including messages on payslips.

In summary, effective international communications does come with its own particular considerations. There is no replacement for upfront effort in finding out what will work on the ground in the countries you want to reach. It’s all about getting to know your audience and, with sensitivity and understanding, there is no reason why your message should have to  get ‘lost in translation.’

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Daniel Schraibman is a director of communications, coaching and business consultancy Serekinti www.serekinti.com.

 

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