Saturday, 2 August 2008

Sometimes translation is the problem?

When I describe my work to a new set of people I often have to spend some time encouraging them to think beyond language and translation as the problems in international business co-operation. The things that words don't say, about expectations, about different ways of approaching work and different assumption are often the real root of the problem.

However, recently I was introduced to an area where translation issues really are part of the problem. The setting is a small UK company that has been bought by a larger foreign organisation. Local management have mostly remained in place, although there are some ex-pats from the main organisation now present. [Details are obscured to protect confidentiality.]

Senior management from the larger corporation journey out from their home country twice a year or so to ask questions about performance and set new directions for the UK subsidiary.

Analysing a fundamental breakdown in performance it seems to be the case that communication between the foreign leaders and local managers is a particular part of the problem. Certainly, the foreign leaders show signs of misunderstanding the local business context and the local managers do not seem to grasp the strategic import of certain decisions.

As a  simplification, they are not managing to question each other properly and as a result, not obtaining important information from each other.

So why do I say, this time, language might be the problem? After all, we know that different cultures have different reactions to how various levels of the hierarchy should interact. Might that not be the root of this problem?

I won't deny that there were some of those issues in play. However, the key analysis point was that the situation had got noticeably worse with a change in translation services. So, for once translation is the problem!

This being a language I am certainly no expert in, I had to consult with others. They did an assessment and report back that the translator is of technically a very high standard and well suited to the nuances involved. The next step was "live" observation of the interaction between local managers, foreign leaders and the translator. At last, things start to become more clear. The culture of this particular foreign nation has a traditional tendency to place women in a subordinate position, putting less weight on their words, particularly when they disagree with someone of higher status. The previous translator had been male and the new one was female. The technical quality of translation had not changed, but the reception by the audience definitely had. So translation was the problem, but the problem had cultural roots.



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