The translation of meaning in multi-national organisations

25 October, 2018
In any business, meaning is key to an driving engagement. The translation of meaning across multi-lingual colleagues is a key challenge in multinationals.

In any business, employee communication is key to the strength of an organisation, and a good understanding of how communication works is central to its effectiveness. It’s often the emotional side of communication that will inspire the desire to be part of an organisation’s ‘family’, to contribute to and to share in its success.  The translation of meaning in multi-national businesses is a particular challenge in today’s global economy.


What’s the significance of ‘emotional’ meaning for professional communication?

It’s clear that well-crafted and effective emotional messages engage, motivate and even inspire within an organisation; from small firms to international enterprise, emotions play a large part in the cohesion of a working group.

So choose your words carefully! Consider if those words will convey the same message to your colleagues whose cultures and languages differ.


Where do the problems occur?

Having established that the ‘emotional’ aspect of a message is critical, how is this lost?  There are 3 main factors at work here:

1) How translation works– as an interpretive process

2) What people are trying to say– metaphor permeates deeper than you might realise

3) How an audience understands– the problem of multiple viewpoints


1. Meaning can be lost in interpretation

This is a universal problem when translating. Translation is subjective. Two different interpretations of the same source material can emphasise quite different aspects of the original text, but neither is necessarily ‘wrong’.

To add to the complexity, organisations often adopt vocabulary that is unique to them.

Luckily there are solutions. One that works well when translating relatively abstract concepts is transcreation. The term describes the concept of translating emotive ideas while creating something that retains tone, spirit and ideas of the original text.

Other solutions encompass more mechanical processes such as qualifying acceptable ways of conveying ideas to new audiences that fit well with the ethos of the organization.

2. People don’t speak – or think – literally

Another hurdle for translators is that the translation any meaningful message is hindered by how people express and understand meaning.

To capture the richness of experience within the limitations of any language, it’s common to fall back on metaphors, which vary from culture to culture and are language-specific. You only need to glance at one of the endless lists of ‘untranslatable’ words to see how often languages tend towards metaphors and figurative language in a unique way.

More than a limitation of the act of translating, it’s the inexactness of words and phrases that causes this problem, as metaphors are, by their nature, indirect, which contributes to the difficulty of translation.

Business communication can be mixed – there’s always the temptation to put in an easy metaphor, however this can be mostly avoided by using more literal or direct language.

3. Particular types of message and emotion are expressed and understood differently by different cultures

It’s a fact that learning a new language brings gives you a new perspective so it’s clear that people who speak different languages who perceive the world differently.

Remember that there’s a subtlety to every expression that you’ll need to keep in mind when considering how you will write and ultimately translate your message.


How do I avoid these pitfalls if I need my message translated?

The first point to make here is that very little business communication is completely untranslatable – and most of it isn’t too challenging. Here’s how to make it easier for yourself (and your audience) in the future:

  • Keep it simple – complexity of expression and ideas are often not necessary anyway
  • Make your message universal – if you know it’s going global, be sure to keep inmind cultural differences
  • Avoid colloquialisms
  • Remember the audience – it’s who you’re writing for anyway!

Translators can overcome all of the problems above, but to ensure you get it as good as possible, keeping a focus on well-crafted message will give the you best chance at being understood well every time.

At The Big Picture People, if you have non-English speaking colleagues, we can offer a comprehensive and seamless translation service to convert your full Learning Map into any language.

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