If you have ever been involved in a foreign business meeting, you are aware of how stressful it can sometimes be to rely on our secondary (or tertiary) language skills. Even with decades of experience in communication and diplomacy, we sometimes may get tripped up with the meaning of a word, an accent, or the use of an unfamiliar example. It happens to the best of us, and can change the outcome on an entire project. In Europe, many of us whom operate in the international marketplace often find ourselves exposed to different work environments, office cultures, or executives used to doing things a certain way. Yet, we all come together with one thing in common: using business English as a shared language.
(I would like to point out that using English is not always the case; but for purposes of this example, it will stick to get our point across.).
Not everyone is a native speaker. Most business people use English as a second language. Skill sets vary, someone with a decent knowledge base and command of linguistics is usually able to utilize their skills to conduct a meeting or carry a conversation. (Or, at least it said so on your CV.) The point is that general knowledge and "enough to get by" are not native eyes.
Subtle errors occur most often with large scale translations such as a sales pitch or management presentation, and can also appear in mundane, everyday communication such as email. Many times, it happens in a power point deck which was designed for a local, native audience. These get translated into English for an upcoming meeting using software or applications, and their misuse of punctuation can cause some statements to take on an entirely different meaning or purpose. Some mishaps happen with the simple use (or misuse) of a comma or period. One of my personal favorites is from a magazine cover featuring the famous chef, Rachel Ray. The headline read, "Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog." It was intended to be three separate elements: "Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking, her family, and her dog." See how the meaning can change? To that point, notice the change of intention with and without the comma here: "Let's eat, Opa!" and "Let's eat Opa!" Quite a difference, especially for Opa. One final example came from a charity which helps people locate employment. After making a donation to their cause, you would receive a notice stating, "Thank you. Your donation just helped someone. Get a job!" Not the best message you want to send to your patrons.
From a cultural standpoint, many idioms and examples also get lost in translation. We all grow up with certain sayings or stories which are adopted into our daily lives. Inevitably, we sometimes assume everyone is familiar with their meaning or has the same passions as ourselves. Worse, we believe that our usage of these examples relates to everyone we come across. Football to Americans holds a completely different meaning to the rest of the world, and not everyone is a fan. Making statements which assume your audience is familiar with your reference can also be dangerous. In a real life example, I once witnessed a financial advisor give a one hour sales pitch to a prospective client about how finance related to his former career in professional baseball. As it turned out, the client neither knew anything about sports, nor did he relate to the analogy. And, no matter how many times we tried to redirect the advisor's conversation, he always turned back towards baseball. What was supposed to be an easy deal, left us cringing throughout the entire meeting; and ended with us losing a client. Another word of caution around the use of famous parables. These stories may not be the most well known in different parts of the world. "Hans im Glück" for example, may not have the same impact to an audience unfamiliar with its origin. The bottom line is to limit the use of these examples when you present to your international audience.
Other elements to beware of are homonyms and grammar. These are words which sound the same but have completely different meanings, and can happen in the written and spoken word. This is especially true in the English language. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen mistakes with items like these: "We can gain a significant peace (piece) of the marketplace if we do this." Or, "There (They're) going to reduce our costs by 10%." Other errors stem from the improper order of words. The ever popular "All you can eat." sign which instead reads: "You can eat all." It may seem trivial, but mistakes like these are easy to miss, and can halt a deal in its tracks.
The best advice is to keep it simple and direct. Know your audience and to whom you are presenting. Preparing your deck, email, or presentation for the international stage is no easy task, and should not be taken lightly. Sites and apps such as Google Translate, iTranslate, Linguee (great for finance), or MyLanguagePro are great touchstones in order to obtain a basic understanding of what is being said; but their results should be vetted thoroughly before public presentation. Add a second filter to double check the results with other apps such as DeepL (great all around), Leo (great for German) or Pons (when learning a language), to help clear up any mistakes. Then have another pair of eyes read through the translation to help polish it up from there.
Companies such as ours specialize in these type of issues. Feel free to seek us out when you need help and to make absolutely certain that your best effort is being represented.
--Scott S. Rosen
Managing Director - SRCC Impera GmbH