Today SanTranslate was one of the translation companies attending the EMITA International Communications Masterclass in Nottingham, and very interesting it was too.

We talked to lots of people already, or about to become, responsible for furthering their companies’ international trade about what their concerns are when working with translation companies.  Despite coming from a wide variety of sectors including manufacturing, food and software development, they all had one thing in common – a need for accuracy in their technical translation and legal translation such as contracts.  Many were also investigating the issues around web site translation.

We also managed to attend some useful presentations, including one from Rob Williams, of the University of Westminster and International House, who led an interactive presentation where we got do discuss a number of case studies, identifying the unhelpful culturally-based assumptions that people had made, unwittingly leading to problems.

In most cases, both side could not understand what they had done wrong, insisting that they had, rather, been helpful and had been hard done by by the other.

Rob explained that these unhelpful assumptions can be broken down into three groups: cultural assumptions, language assumptions, and assumptions about using English.  For example, different cultures have different styles of discourse – some will talk at length giving many examples and explanations which might seem irrelevant to others who are more direct and might, in turn, be perceived as abrupt and rude.

He explained some of the reasons why misunderstandings can occur and how you can avoid them.

Language can be ambiguous and people work out meanings from context, their past experience and their assumptions about how things normally work.  They fix these ideas quickly but they are not necessarily appropriate to different cultures.  One culture’s attitude to “small talk” might be that it is essential for creating rapport; to another it can seem insincere and hypocritical.

In the UK, it seems, we should be aware of habits that unhelpful to non-native English speakers:

  • We talk too fast for them to understand but should slow our speech without sounding patronising;
  • We use confusing and non-commital language – what is a non-English speaker supposed to make of an expression such as “That sounds like a plan”?
  • We tend to ask negative questions which take a bit more thinking about than phrasing the question in positive terms;
  • We bandy about acronym and expressions based on our own culture that do not relate to others;
  • We assume that because someone speaks good English that they are just as adept at understanding us so instead we should check understanding regularly as we converse.

There was some discussion about whether using an interpreter can help to avoid problems and misunderstandings.  Some audience members suggested that doing so gets in the way of developing one-to-one relationships which is an interesting point.  Everyone agreed that the ability of the interpreter would be crucial as a poor interpreter could cause more problems than they solve.  We weren’t surprised that quality was an issue for this audience for interpretation as well as translation; the more serious a business is about its international trade, the more the quality of language service provision counts.

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