Lost in translation

In meeting in Paris since Monday, mostly closed in a room in a fancy hotel at La Defence.

Yesterday I spent some good time with a colleague from Singapore; she is actually responsible for marketing operations in AsiaPac. We exchanged some business stories. Then we ended up discussing the acquisition, and finally the conversation moved to the job I have done as a leader of the integration as far as Comms is concerned. She politely thanked me for the job done. Then, still very politely, she told me that we messed up communications in Japan – and that she had to find a solution, at the last minute. In the end, all things worked fine: customers were properly informed. Emails went out. Situation was back to normality soon.

I was intrigued and started to investigate. What exactly did we do in order to mess comms up in Japan? So I discovered that the letter was not properly translated into Japanese. Better, it was literally translated. And this was the problem.

The letter said something like: Dear Mr. Customer, we are glad to inform you that A has been acquired by B. The combination of the two companies will provide an unprecedented value in the field of energy management and industrial automation. Bla, bla, bla.

A literal translation would definitely offend a client from Japan. Too direct, too rude, too arrogant. A proper communications should not go immediately to the point. It should start with an ice-breaking topic; then move to the acquisition.

In few words, it should have been translated as: Dear Mr. Customer, weather is worsening and it’s becoming cold; we hope that you will protect yourself from these unfortunate weather conditions. That said, we are glad to inform you that A has been acquired by B. The combination of the two companies will provide an unprecedented value in the field of energy management and industrial automation. Bla, bla, bla.

So that was the problem. Then I questioned why the translation agency (Japanese) did not properly translated the letter. The answer was that it was requested to go with a (directed) translation and that’s what the agency did. A proper translation should have been clearly requested.

Lost, in translation.

One Reply to “Lost in translation”

  1. Well, japanese politeness is very odd. To the point that avoiding contradictions trumps preventing mistakes.
    I once had a japanese office-mate, and I had to be very careful in making questions. If I asked him something like “Is this the right way to do this?”, he would feel compelled to answer “yes” even if it was totally wrong, because starting a sentence with “No” was “too rude” (his words). You always had to give him the chance of giving the right answer without contradicting you (like “I would like to do this. Is there a better way than this?”).

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